TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Columbus Blue Jackets will remain competitive despite losing several key players during a tumultuous offseason, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Tuesday.
“We are going to miss some contributions those guys had,” Kekalainen said. “It’s undeniable that they are good players and we have great respect for them, but we are going to be good without them as well.”
The Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round last season before losing to the Boston Bruins, the eventual conference champions, in the second round in six games. But the team that starts this season will look quite different than the one that gave the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning fits with a suffocating, relentless style of play.
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The Blue Jackets lost three unrestricted free agents July 1. Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best goalie, agreed to terms on a seven-year contract with the Florida Panthers. Forward Artemi Panarin, who had 169 points (55 goals, 114 assists) in two seasons with the Blue Jackets, agreed to a seven-year contract with the New York Rangers. Center Matt Duchene, acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 22 before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, signed a seven-year contract with the Nashville Predators.
The Blue Jackets plan to start the season with Joonas Korpisalo as their only established goalie. The 25-year-old has played 90 NHL games in four seasons with Columbus. Elvis Merzlikens has the inside track on the backup job, but the 25-year-old has yet to play an NHL game.
While attending the 2019 NHL Prospect Tournament, where Columbus defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime Tuesday in the third-place game, Kekalainen discussed the outlook for the Blue Jackets in an interview with NHL.com.
What is going to be the message to this team when it shows up to training camp Thursday to start preparing for the season?
“I’m going to save that message for the group of guys that we have there, but I mean it is part of the same message we have every year: that we believe in the process, we believe in working extremely hard in the offseason to be prepared for Day One and we believe in the preparation day in and day out to get us through the regular season and into the playoffs to be at our best when the playoffs start. We want to be a hard-working team and a team that is hard to play against. We want to be a team with a capital T. Those are the messages that are in every message we make to the team, and it will be no different this year.”
Management has spoken repeatedly this offseason about the players that have left, but when you show up for camp will that be mentioned again or is that all forgotten, and you just move on to the future?
“I think we will probably address it one more time because everybody is always asking about it and then we will move on. Like we have said all along, before we knew they were gone and after they were gone, that we are going to be a good team no matter what. We were a good team before some of those players arrived in our organization and we are going to be a good team after they leave. Hockey is a team sport.”
Do the experiences you went through this offseason with those players leaving change your mindset when it comes to building a team? You have some roster stability for the next couple of seasons but could face a similar situation in 2021-22 when defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones each could be in the final season of his contract.
“Why do you think we are likely to go into the same situation? They might be under contract on July 1 the year before they expire (by signing an extension). We pretty much knew these guys (from last season) were going to leave, you just can’t go out and say it in the middle of the year. It was part of the thing. We knew what was going to happen. Knowing that, we went for it, knowing these guys were going to be here for the last time. That is why we decided to give it all we got. Every situation is different depending on where you are at with your assets, where you at with your prospects and what you have been able to produce through the (NHL) Draft. That’s why you have to make that decision each time within a unique situation. This time, we felt that we were stocked with prospects that can replace some of those holes that were created by those guys.”
So it won’t affect you at all when you make decisions going forward?
“No. Every situation is different. I think the guys that want to play for the Blue Jackets, want to be a Blue Jacket and want to live in Columbus, Ohio, and embrace it, they will most likely sign a contract before they ever get to the day of being a UFA.”
Goaltending is going to be one of the biggest questions going into the season. What has you confident that the goalie situation as you have it right now is what is going to be best for this team?
“Well, we don’t want to have them leave without an opportunity and go somewhere else and become great No. 1s. That has happened a lot around the League, they were No. 2s somewhere else and never really got an opportunity and then went somewhere else and became No. 1 goaltenders. We don’t want to do that. We want to give our talented young goalies a chance to shine with our own group and our own organization. There are great examples of it all around the League. How Carolina went about it last year (with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney) and was successful. St. Louis won the (Stanley) Cup with a guy (Jordan Binnington) that was No. 2 with their minor league team at the beginning of the year. So we’ll see what they are going to do. According to all our goalie experts, they are very talented, and they are going to get a great opportunity to show it on the ice.”
You mentioned prospects filling roles earlier, and one of them is playing here in Traverse City is 19-year-old forward Alexandre Texier, who played two NHL games in the regular season and had a strong playoff run for the Blue Jackets last season. What do you like about his game, and what you have seen from him in this tournament?
“I like almost everything about his game. I didn’t watch Kaapo Kakko‘s debut (for the New York Rangers) yesterday. I’m sure it was great, and he was second overall (in the 2019 NHL Draft) for a reason. But, I’m pretty confident in saying that Texier is one of the best forwards in this tournament, and traditionally the best guys from here, the guys that rise above everybody else, have a very good chance of making an impact in the NHL.”