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Columbus’s Biggest Believer Gets The Boot

Jarmo Kekalainen during the NHL Draft
Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images|

Jarmo Kekalainen, pictured performing “Amazing Grace” at the 2023 NHL Draft.

Let no one say Jarmo Kekalainen didn't turn around the Blue Jackets; the problem is that it was a full 360-degree turn. Columbus went from bad to fine back to bad, so now management wants a new face in the office for the next go-round. On Thursday morning, after a couple of blah losses following the all-star break, John Davidson announced that he had fired the third-longest-tenured GM in the NHL, as Columbus slogs through another tough season at the bottom of the standings.

When Kekalainen took over, 11 years ago almost to the day, this franchise had tasted the playoffs just once—and gotten swept. With his rosters, they won their first-ever postseason games in 2014, then put together a streak of four straight appearances from 2017 to 2020 that would have been pretty forgettable had it not been for the absolute punking they put on the Lightning in 2019. But the building blocks of Columbus's success were soon scattered, and these most recent couple of seasons have been particularly dispiriting. Last year was at bad as it gets—59 points and a minus-116 goal differential—and after a poorly thought-out attempt to let Mike Babcock mold this team, Kekalainen was left this year with a bunch of young guys, unplanned absences, and a murky future.

The lasting impact of Kekalainen, for this nascent franchise still determining its identity, may be his confidence in Columbus as a legit NHL city, even if some top free agents might disagree. He operated the Blue Jackets with a belief that they should not resign themselves to a role as the league's kid brother. When he could have dealt Sergei Bobrovsky's and Artemi Panarin's expiring contracts for longer-lasting assets, he held on and got that indelible sweep of Tampa before watching them leave for Miami and New York. In the following years he weathered the stigma that nobody would want to spend their career in Ohio. When he unexpectedly inked Johnny Gaudreau to a big contract in the summer of 2022, he claimed it as a crowning achievement for his philosophy: “I think we can finally get rid of the bullshit that this is somehow a bad destination, a bad city, whatever."

Johnny Hockey has been very quiet in Columbus, however, and the Jackets have continued to lose. What Kekalainen's successor will inherit is a team with a lot of growing to be done and some tricky decisions to be made. The Jackets have a decent chunk of money tied up in older guys who aren't doing much for them at the moment, especially in the back, but they're also approaching extension time for several young players. Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Yegor Chinakhov: all of these forwards are making under $1 million this year, and none of them are older than 23. All of them certainly could emerge as key components in the Blue Jackets' resurgence, or none of them could pan out as anything more than depth guys.

The franchise wants someone other than Kekalainen to make these calls, and that's fair. His vision was admirable at times, his execution flawed at others, and I think the Blue Jackets have been around long enough to realize that they can't spend their way out of a hole. They're draft-and-build, not sign-and-reload, stuck weathering these sorts of boom-and-bust cycles until they have some history to sell, or at least warmer winters and better nightclubs.

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