To most NHL observers, the biggest question this week wasn’t when the Blue Jackets fired general manager Scott Howson, but why it took so long.
Yet the biggest surprise to come from it, was the man Blue Jackets hockey ops exec John Davidson tapped to replace Howson: Jarmo Kekalainen.
The Finn just become the first European GM of an NHL club in league history.
Kekalainen has been in Europe serving as GM at Jokerit.
He worked under Davidson in St. Louis as an assistant GM and director of scouting from 2006-10, even though he was there before Davidson arrived as far back as in 2002.
Under him, the Blues drafted T.J. Oshie, David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo.
“Thirty percent of the players in our league are European,” Davidson told the Columbus Dispatch.
“He's very intelligent about the world of hockey, the players in this game all over the world, not just North America. We expect him to do a very good job, and he's very excited about it.”
Kekalainen prides himself in not making mistakes with first-round picks. Columbus has three such picks this summer -- their own; the LA Kings (Jeff Carter deal); and the Rangers (Rick Nash deal). Suffice to say, the 2013 draft will be monumental for Kekalainen.
“When I see the three first-round picks,” Kekalainen told the National Post, “my eyes light up.”
It’s well-documented how poorly Columbus has done in the past with first-rounders -- Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, Jakub Voracek … You get the picture.
Yet developing players, keeping them long-term, and surrounding them with integral players to complement and bring out their best, remains the task at hand for Kekalainen.
“We know how important the draft is, and this one is a deep draft,” Davidson told the Post. “He’ll become a major voice regarding the upcoming draft. That certainly played into it … but it’s certainly not all of it.”
Blue Jacket players knew the winds of change were coming.
“JD’s made it really clear,” Nick Foligno told the Dispatch. “We’re going to go in a different direction, and what’s happened in the past has to be forgotten. We have to move forward and become a great team.
“It’s our job to go out there and play and not worry about what’s going on in the draft or with trades or in free agency or any of that stuff. It’s our job to put a good product on the ice, and you’ve seen that from us the last couple of games.”
Kekalainen won’t arrive in the United States until Monday to meet with Blue Jackets management.
What Davidson may not have told him is that besides making the team competitive again, he must also help save the franchise. The fan base pretty much gave up on the club years ago and hasn’t come back.
It began with the unwarranted firing of Ken Hitchcock less than a season after making the playoffs. The entire Nash mess had turned many against the player, and the team.
Hitchcock made them a playoff club and well, there’s been more lockouts (two) than playoff appearances (one) since.
“We’re going to seriously look at this thing with an open mind and get everyone involved,” Davidson told the Dispatch.
“We’re talking lots of long days and nights talking about the players we have here, in the minors, our prospects … really get a lay of the land with our club.”
Davidson says he knows the inner Kekalainen.
“He’s a driven man.”
He’ll need to be that way to succeed in Columbus.
Associated Press, Columbus Dispatch, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Sun and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette contributed to this story.