Michael Arace commentary: Kekalainen isn’t trading yet, but give him time
New Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen and assistant general manager Chris MacFarland motored to Pittsburgh to take in a Penguins-Tampa Bay Lightning game on Monday. They were joined in the press box by senior adviser Craig Patrick, who lives in Pittsburgh.
Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review connected the dots and came up with some quality speculation. The Penguins are looking for backline help. Defenseman Simon Despres, 21, a former first-round pick, is said to be available in trade and might be enough bait to get Jack Johnson.
Johnson might pair nicely with Kris Letang — and also serve as an insurance policy in case Letang is traded before his contract expires next year.
The cherry on top is that Johnson and Sidney Crosby are pals. Rossi merely pieced together how this puzzle might fit. The thing is, this was one of the first juicy rumors to hit the web this year. The trade deadline is April 3, but for hockey fans, spring arrived as soon as the Jackets brain trust was spotted in Pittsburgh.
Despres-for-Johnson was a 24-hour online event.
Kekalainen was asked about the rumor last night before the Jackets defeated the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 in a shootout at Nationwide Arena. He was clear that he is not keen on commenting about trade rumors. He also was clear that this particular rumor was baseless.
“It’s silly,” he said. “I went to watch a game. Ray Shero (the Penguins’ general manager) is a friend of mine.”
Kekalainen used an off day to see two teams he would not otherwise get a chance to see. It was that simple, he said. His relationship with Shero dates to the late 1980s, when he was a player and Shero was his agent. How close are they? Before Kekalainen returned to Finland in 2010, he sold his car to Shero. One might guess it was not a Chevy Corsica.
“He stole it,” Kekalainen said, meaning Shero got a good deal.
Mild humor and a trace of a smile — see? There is a human being behind those laser-beam eyes.
He might want to steer clear of Shero, who in 2011 acquired James Neal and Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars for Alex Goligoski. Now, that is a steal.
Is Kekalainen in the market?
“We will look at any way possible of improving our team,” he said. “You guys are going to get sick of hearing me say that.”
Rather than hitting the scouting trail, Kekalainen has been sticking close to the Jackets since he arrived in Columbus. It is an indication that his first priority is the trade deadline. He is figuring out which players he wants to keep and which to discard.
Does Kekalainen yet have a read on his team?
“I can’t know everything after five games and 10 practices, but I know a lot more now than I did two weeks ago,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process. I want to turn over every stone and keep improving. I need to know exactly where we are — all the time.”
Is anyone untouchable?
Kekalainen was not going to touch that question (other than to reiterate that he will look at any possible way of improving his team). But we can speculate. It is that time of year.
Ryan Johansen, Ryan Murray, John Moore, Boone Jenner — young players and high draft picks whose potential fits into future plans — maybe they are untouchable. Anyone else? Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Dorsett, maybe? Maybe.
This is a last-place team. It is trying to change its culture. Who does not fit? Soon, Kekalainen will let everyone know.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.