5 offseason questions for Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen

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Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen speaks after hiring Mike Babcock as the new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch
Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen speaks after hiring Mike Babcock as the new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

The NHL offseason is in its usual lull despite several big names remaining unsigned as free agents.

That’s usually not a big deal for the Blue Jackets, who typically complete their summer roster reshuffling long before the end of July. This year, they’re stuck in a holding pattern with too many NHL caliber players and not enough roster spots. They haven’t completed a trade since June, when two deals were struck within three days to add Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson, and it’s beginning to feel like the Jackets may start training camp with a bulging roster.

More: 5 reasons for optimism about the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2023-24

They also need to sign a depth goalie and figure out whether Patrik Laine’s brief experiment as a center will continue. Addressing those issues and more, here are five offseason questions for Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen:

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Michael Hutchinson (31) saves a shot from Pittsburgh Penguins center Ryan Poehling (25) during the second period of the NHL hockey game at Nationwide Arena on April 13, 2023.
Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Michael Hutchinson (31) saves a shot from Pittsburgh Penguins center Ryan Poehling (25) during the second period of the NHL hockey game at Nationwide Arena on April 13, 2023.

Are the Columbus Blue Jackets finished with offseason moves?

Thus far, the only signing this summer was rookie center Adam Fantilli, whom they drafted third overall in July. Goaltending depth is an area that stands out for a shortage, and Kekalainen said the goal is to sign a veteran with NHL experience to play primarily with the Cleveland Monsters in the American Hockey League.

Kekalainen: “We’re still looking for that goalie. We have Jet Greaves, who we’re planning to start in Cleveland. We’ve got two (NHL) goalies who both require waivers. We’re counting on having a good year with Elvis (Merzlikins) and (Daniil) Tarasov, so I think we need one experienced goalie who can be a mentor to Greaves and be a call-up if we have injuries.

“Preferably, we’ll get a guy who has NHL experience, who we know can play in the league if we need him. But we have full faith in our goalies. They’re both due for a big rebound, so this is an important season for both to stay healthy and put their talents to good use.”

Columbus Blue Jackets center Liam Foudy (19) passes the puck to Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Eric Robinson (50) against Florida Panthers during the first period of their NHL game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on January 26, 2020.
Columbus Blue Jackets center Liam Foudy (19) passes the puck to Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Eric Robinson (50) against Florida Panthers during the first period of their NHL game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on January 26, 2020.

Are other changes expected for the Columbus Blue Jackets?

Thanks to several injuries last season, the Blue Jackets have a lot of skaters who gained NHL experience. If nothing changes, they’ll start camp with no less than 21 forwards and 12 defensemen who have played in NHL games. The NHL roster for the regular season caps at 23.

The key question: Who gets shuffled around before the Oct. 12 season opener against the Philadelphia Flyers?

Kekalainen: “We have a 23-man roster, so we’ve got to make some decisions once we get to training camp. Some of them require waivers, some of them don’t, and we’ll see what happens. There could be a lot of things that could happen before we get to the point where we have to choose our roster, but it’s a 23-man roster and we’ve got to get down to it at the right time.”

Columbus Blue Jackets center Emil Bemstrom (52) jumps into the arms of Columbus Blue Jackets center Jack Roslovic (96) after scoring his third goal of the game for a hat trick against the Nashville Predators during the third period of Monday's NHL game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on May 3, 2021.
Columbus Blue Jackets center Emil Bemstrom (52) jumps into the arms of Columbus Blue Jackets center Jack Roslovic (96) after scoring his third goal of the game for a hat trick against the Nashville Predators during the third period of Monday’s NHL game at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on May 3, 2021.

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets’ training camp be overcrowded?

There is still about two months before camp opens, which is plenty of time to address the logjam.

The issue is that most of the league’s GMs have figured out their rosters, which dimmed the trade market after the signings that followed the July 1 opening of free agency. A small group of well-known free agents also remain unsigned, which further clouds the forecast for those seeking trades.

The Blue Jackets might be stuck in offseason gridlock until camp arrives.

Kekalainen: “We’ll see. There’s a lot of things that can happen before training camp, before we get to that decision time about the roster, so we’re just going to take our time and observe. And if it gets to training camp, we’re going to get another chance to evaluate where the players are this year, at this point of their careers, and we’ll go from there.”

Feb 16, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (70) turns away a shot from Winnipeg Jets left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) defended by left wing Patrik Laine (29) during the second period of the NHL hockey game at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch
Feb 16, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (70) turns away a shot from Winnipeg Jets left wing Pierre-Luc Dubois (80) defended by left wing Patrik Laine (29) during the second period of the NHL hockey game at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-The Columbus Dispatch

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets let Patrik Laine dabble at center?

Brad Larsen was replaced as head coach by veteran Mike Babcock, but associate coach Pascal Vincent remains on staff for the final year of his contract. Will he lobby with Babcock to give Laine another look as a center?

Laine got only two games in the middle before a season-ending triceps injury, but it was an interesting project with how much eagerness he showed for learning the new position.

Kekalainen: “That’s something you’re going to have to ask the new head coach at training camp. We all have an open mind about different ideas that can make us better, but it’s up to the coach to decide where the players play, who plays with who, what the lines look like and what the center ice position looks like. So, that’s a question for Mike Babcock.”

Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets name Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch
Jul 1, 2023; Columbus, Ohio, United States; Columbus Blue Jackets name Mike Babcock as their new head coach during a press conference at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Robertson-The Columbus Dispatch

Will the Columbus Blue Jackets look for more NHL veterans?

During a podcast appearance after taking the Blue Jackets’ coaching job, Babcock said the current roster in Columbus is still “too young,” and needs to be adjusted further.

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Kekalainen has worked diligently to put together an NHL roster and organizational system filled with young players and the Blue Jackets are now seen by analysts as having one of the best prospect collections in the league. Could that stockpile now be used as trade capital to get additional veterans into Blue Jackets uniforms?

Kekalainen: “I think we get experienced as we move on and grow here, but if there’s a change that’s available that doesn’t just sacrifice our youth for immediate help or something like that, we’ll always consider making ourselves better. But I’ve said it all along that we’re not trading our promising young talent for a guy who is at the end of the line and can give us maybe one or two good years and then ride into the sunset. We’re not doing something like that. We’re going to be building patiently in the right way and getting into that window where we can compete once we get back into the playoffs and have a chance to win the Stanley Cup.

“We’re not in a rush to do that. We want to be competitive right away. and I’ve said this all along, that we’ve watched the playoffs enough now. We want to get back into that group that competes for the playoffs until the end of the year and hopefully makes it before the end of the year, but we’re not going to make some changes and sacrifice the young talent just to be better this year.”

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@BrianHedger

Get more Columbus Blue Jackets talk on the Cannon Fodder podcast

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: 5 offseason questions for Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen

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