Jarmo Kekalainen finally gets his chance.
The Finnish hockey executive, who spent time bolstering the lineups of the Ottawa Senators and St. Louis Blues with sharp drafting, became the first European-born GM in NHL history when the Columbus Blue Jackets unveiled him Wednesday as Scott Howson’s replacement.
The hiring was first suggested Tuesday night by TSN's Darren Dreger as a strong possibility, so it's no surprise to see Kekalainen get the call from Blue Jackets president John Davidson, who saw Kekalainen's work firsthand when they worked together in St. Louis.
As director of amateur scouting for the Blues from 2002 to 2010, Kekalainen was responsible for many of the prospects who today have become core players in St. Louis -- the likes of David Backes, David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Alex Petrangelo. Kekalainen served in the Senators' front office from 1995 to 2002, and his draft picks included Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat.
"It’s well-deserved for Jarmo," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, who worked with Kekalainen in Ottawa, told ESPN.com Wednesday. "One thing he’s really good at is that he finds skill players who have grit, which is hard to do; he does a great job at that."
Kekalainen bolted back home to Finland to take over as GM of Jokerit in 2010; I believe he was not terribly thrilled that he didn’t get the big job in St. Louis, which instead went to Doug Armstrong (the Blues still made the right choice).
It was interesting that when I mentioned the Kekalainen-to-Columbus rumor to a pair of Western Conference team executives Tuesday night, their reaction was identical. They both used the word "arrogant" to describe him, but also stressed that he really knew his stuff.
Jackets fans can live with all the arrogance in the world if it finally means getting their sad-sack franchise off the mat after years and years of futility.
They hoped Howson would be that man when, in June 2007, the Jackets made him the second GM in franchise history. And despite a first-ever playoff appearance in 2009, Howson wasn’t able to get this team over the hump. The Rick Nash saga perhaps did him in, although I’d suggest not finding a legitimate No. 1 goaltender was the true poison pill.
Still, Howson was a great man to deal with during his time as Jackets GM; he was honest and to the point. Davidson told me Tuesday night that Howson took the news with class.
And Howson also left a gift behind for Kekalainen: three first-round picks in a very good June draft (the Jackets' pick, plus L.A.’s pick from the Jeff Carter deal and the Rangers' pick from the Nash deal).
Kekalainen knows what to do with draft picks, so it’s the perfect tee-up for him.
"Yes, this is a deep draft," Davidson said at a news conference Wednesday morning, stressing that was part of his decision to hire Kekalainen.
Kekalainen’s challenge, as noted above, will be to find a goalie. The first thing I’d do if I were him is call GM Dean Lombardi in L.A. and ask for Jonathan Bernier. I’d also poke around in Vancouver and see what it would take to pry Cory Schneider (it would take a massive offer). The Canucks would rather deal Roberto Luongo, but it doesn’t hurt to try for Schneider.
In the bigger picture, Kekalainen’s biggest challenge -- also shared by Davidson -- will be to convince players, especially free agents, to play in Columbus. The only way to lure top-end free agents so far has been to grossly overpay them, and that’s no way to build a team.
"We want to send a message loud and clear that we’re in a position of change," Davidson said at Wednesday’s news conference. "We’re going forward the right way. This is about changing a culture and getting it to where I need to get it to."