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Jarmo Week: Revisiting the best and worst draft picks of Kekalainen’s tenure

EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to Jarmo Week!

February 13 will mark the 10 year anniversary of Jarmo Kekalainen assuming the role of General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Over the last decade, the franchise has seen some highs and lows, with Jarmo himself making some splashy moves and also some costly errors.

Over the course of this week, we will take a look at his performance in several areas: player contracts, draft picks, and trades. We’ll compare his moves and his results to other long-serving GMs around the league. Finally, we’ll end the week by attempting to answer the question: is Kekalainen the right man for the job going forward?

Columbus  Blue Jackets’ General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, earned his stripes and made a name for himself in the NHL not so much as a player, but as a scout. Kekalainen was very quickly signed as GM when John Davidson was brought in to right the ship in Columbus. His tenure with the St. Louis Blues saw him lead the scouting department and prepare the team for the draft. He drafted players like T.J. Oshie, David Perron, David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo and turned the Blues into a perennial contender.

Let’s just say his results with the Blue Jackets have been mixed. He’s had a few no brainer picks that fell into his lap early in the first round, but whiffed on multiple first round picks that were in the latter half. For as many misses in the first, Jarmo does seem to have a pretty good knack for finding some later round gems.

Here is my list of his best and worst draft picks — in no particular order — of his CBJ career.

Best Picks

Oliver BJORKSTRAND; 2013;  Rd. 3 #89 overall

This is my biased pick as he’s my all-time favorite Blue Jacket, but there is also a strong argument to be made that he is one of Kekalainen’s best draft picks. Bjorkstrand was a diminutive winger who put up strong numbers in his first years in juniors only to explode after being drafted. He was one of those players who just kept on developing and exceeding expectations. As we know, lots of players can look dominant in juniors only to disappear once they turn pro. That was no so for The Maestro. He graduated to the pro ranks and led the Cleveland Monsters to their first Calder Cup championship in decades. He eventually worked his way up to the NHL where he became a roster lock, a complete, 200-foot player who would go on to lead his team in goals before getting traded for cap space. *sighs*

Not bad at all for a late third round pick.

Vladislav Gavrikov; 2015; Rd. 6 #159 overall

Gavrikov is possibly Jarmo’s finest example of drafting a true late round gem. Gavrikov was nearly 20 when he was selected in the 6th round of the 2015 NHL draft. It is even harder to fathom that Kekalainen selected four defenseman ahead of him in that draft, two of which never played a shift in the NHL.

It took a few years to make the jump to North America, but ever since his arrival he has been a fixture in the Blue Jackets lineup as a gritty, stay-at-home defenseman who plays some of the toughest minutes on the team. He’s performed admirably as the team’s top defenseman this year in the absence of Zach Werenski, even though that should never be his role.

The writing is on the wall with Gavrikov and his time is coming to an end at this years’ trade deadline. However, his biggest contribution to the Blue Jackets may still be to come: the 1st round pick that will be acquired for him via trade.

Turning an overage 6th round pick into a lineup fixture and ultimately a 1st round pick is masterful drafting.

Pierre-Luc Dubois; 2016; Rd. 1 #3 overall

The shock pick of the 2016 first round. For the entire draft year, all everybody heard about was the big three. Matthews, Laine, and Puljujarvi were the consensus top three and all were destined to become stars in the NHL. I remember being ecstatic when the Blue Jackets lottery fortune moved them into the third slot. I had the Jessie P. highlights pulled up within minutes practically salivating over our future star winger.

Then draft night came and the audible gasp that occurred when Ville Siren announced Dubois as the pick, shocking pretty much everyone in the hockey world. Yeah, PLD turned out to be an entitled punk, who moped and half-assed his way out of town fresh off of his entry level contract. I will always hate PLD, but he was the right choice (although Matthew Tkachuk wouldn’t have been too shabby either) over Puljujarvi. But we flipped the #3 pick for the #2 pick, which at the time was a win and would have been massive in 2016.

David Jiricek; 2022; Rd. 1 #6 overall

Ok, I know I’m early on this one but that’s how special of a player I think Jiricek will be. Yes, Columbus was most likely going defense all the way with this pick, and yes, he pretty much fell into Kekalainen’s lap, but sometimes you just have to give credit for not screwing things up.

He already looks far ahead of #2 overall pick Simon Nemec, and will be ready for full time NHL duty next year. He could easily be playing now for the Blue Jackets, but they are wise to keep him away from the dumpster fire that is this year. He’s leading the charge on the blue line as a teenager and putting up historical numbers in the AHL for someone his age.

Zach Werenski; 2015; Rd. 1 #8 overall

It felt wrong leaving the Blue Jackets undisputed #1 defenseman, who signed long-term with the club, off the list. What good is a top pick if they force their way off the team after just a few years? While much of the thinking was done for Jarmo with Hanifin (who he really wanted) and Provorov coming off the board before the 8th pick, Kekalainen came out of that draft with arguably the best defenseman of the entire class.

He’s made Columbus his home and is the leader of the defense. A very strong, young crop of defenseman will be joining the ranks of the CBJ defensive corps in the near future, and Werenski will be the veteran star defenseman who paces the club and helps bring along the prospects.

Worst Picks

Kerby Rychel; 2013; Rd. 1 #19 overall

I was at the draft party in 2013 for this pick, and I want to preface this by saying I wanted 50 goal scorer, Anthony Mantha. But once the pick was made, I felt a little better about it. I’ll admit I was fooled by Rychel too. In my mind, I had him as a tough power-forward who would play a gritty game and bang home 20-25 goals a year on a second or third line. He seemed to have everything going for him; a NHL pedigree, size, and scoring touch.

Unfortunately it never translated to the pro game, not even the AHL. Rychel’s last season in junior saw him post 89 points in just 58 games. He looked and felt pro-ready. He even suited up 3 NHL games for the Jackets the next season while spending most of his time in the AHL.  Even in the Calder Cup run, he looked completely pedestrian. You’d expect a high draft pick to contribute to a championship run, but he produced very little playing bottom-six minutes. After a few years splitting time between the minors and the big leagues, never being able to lock down a spot, Kerby (and his dad) requested a trade.

Hard to imagine the Jackets won that trade by acquiring Scott Harrington from Toronto, but when you consider their careers post trade, its quite clear. Rychel never was able to find a home in the NHL, spending most of his time toiling in the AHL for various clubs. He even headed to the KHL for a very brief stint before returning stateside where he was last seen playing for the Charlotte Checkers.

His final NHL statline: 3G, 11A, 43GP

Liam Foudy; 2018; Rd. 1 #18 overall

Foudy is the only one amongst the “worst list” to still be on the team. Foudy was drafted as somewhat of a project player they would have to develop and round out his game to match his elite skating. Four years later, that has not happened as Foudy is still in search of his first NHL regular season goal. It seems management is too stubborn to admit they have blown another first round pick, refusing to risk putting him on waivers.

Foudy’s speed is still top tier, but the rest of his game has not come anywhere close to catching up. He’s been in and out of the lineup this year, mostly on the fourth line where he has also picked up some penalty killing duties. His statline doesn’t lie though. He’s totaled 0-3-3 in 31 GP this year, with a grand total of 8 assists in 58 career games.

Ryan Collins; 2014; Rd. 2 #47 overall

Collins was drafted to be a big bodied, stay at home defenseman. The type that is really leaned on in close games to protect a lead, or the kind of player that helps win in the grind of a playoff series.

None of that ever happened though. Collins played college hockey at Minnesota and played a steady if unimpressive game. He spent parts of four years in Cleveland, even earning an entry level deal in 2017. Sadly, he never sniffed the NHL, and I had trouble finding any record of him continuing to play hockey after his ELC expired.

At least he will always be able to tell his grandkids he played pro hockey for a few years. It’s more than any of us can say. I try not to mention other players available in the same draft since hindsight is 20/20, but notorious Jackets killer Brayden Point would go a bit later in the 3rd round which makes this pick sting a bit more.

Minus Elvis Merzlikins, the 2014 draft was an abject failure from Kekalainen.

Gabe Carlsson; 2015; Rd. 1 #29 overall

When you trade up to go and grab a player it is taking a gamble, but whatever risk assessment was made internally justified it. They traded a second and third round pick to the Maple Leafs to select Carlsson.

His career trajectory with Columbus was a bit odd. If you recall, he joined the Jackets in their first round playoff series against the Penguins and looked really good! I for sure thought we had a keeper in the rangy, Swedish defenseman.

Sadly that never panned out with Carlsson spending the most of the next few years in Cleveland, getting a few call-ups here and there. His final year he did stick with the Jackets the whole season, and in my opinion wasn’t that bad. He put up 9 points in 38 games with a +6 on the year. Kekalainen didn’t see Carlsson in his future plans and let him walk at the end of the year, with the division rival Washington Capitals picking him up in free agency.

He has not locked down a spot with them either, as he’s spent his time this year with their AHL affiliate in Hershey.

Paul Bittner; 2015; Rd. 2 #38 overall

Bittner was another one I had high hopes for. I’m a sucker for power forward types apparently. Bittner was briefly a teammate of one of my “best” picks in Oliver BJORKSTRAND. Bittner didn’t have anywhere close to the success that Bjorkstrand had. Bittner was billed as a physical forward with a nose for the net. He had success in Portland in the WHL, but as we’ve seen all too often, it never translated to the pros.

His time in Cleveland, he posted modest numbers, but was also somewhat of a fan favorite thanks to his fun personality. Unfortunately, personal issues took him away from the game for a while which seemed to derail his NHL aspirations. After being passed on the depth chart by so many, he decided to continue his hockey career in Europe where he remains to this day, posting mediocre numbers playing in Germany.

Are there any other that stand out to you as either the best or worst picks in Jarmo Kekalainen’s tenure?