VANCOUVER - All those who assumed the first Finnish general manager of a National Hockey League club was bound to be the ageless, sweet-natured sniper, Teemu Selanne (assuming he ever retires): you lose.
Those who wondered if it might be Jari Kurri, his country’s national team GM -- who would have seen every kind of treachery and back-room wheeling and dealing as Finland’s International Olympic Committee member -- or Saku Koivu, who replaced him on the IOC in 2006: no dice.
First European? Hell, it would have to be Igor Larionov or Nick Lidstrom or Mats Sundin or ...
Jarmo Kekalainen. A name, it is fair to say, that 90% of NHL fans had never heard until Wednesday morning, when they came out of the mouth of Columbus Blue Jackets president John Davidson.
Ardent fans of the Ottawa Senators know him. Ditto, supporters of the St. Louis Blues. Both teams owe good portions of their success to players Kekalainen has had a hand in finding, scouting and selecting in entry drafts from 1995-2010.
For the Senators, as a scout and later director of player personnel: Bryan Berard, Chris Phillips, Sami Salo, Marian Hossa, Magnus Arvedson, Mike Fisher, Chris Neil, Martin Havlat, Chris Kelly, Anton Volchenkov, Antoine Vermette, Jason Spezza, Ray Emery, Brooks Laich ...
For the Blues, as top assistant to Davidson: David Backes, Lee Stempniak, Roman Polak, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, Erik Johnson (hey, nobody’s perfect), David Perron, Lars Eller, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko.
Even his Big Miss, Johnson -- No. 1 in the 2006 draft, ahead of Jordan Staal and (groan) Jonathan Toews -- netted Kevin Shattenkirk in a trade with Colorado. Another, David Rundblad, was dealt to Ottawa for the pick that turned into Tarasenko, already a sensation in his first season in St. Louis. Lars Eller was part of the swap with Montreal that brought goalie Jaroslav Halak.
And so, when Davidson mercifully dispatched GM Scott Howson on Tuesday, ending an extraordinarily unsuccessful six-year term of management, his thoughts must have gone as follows:
(a) We’re awful.
(b) We’ve hardly drafted anyone who can play since Rick Nash, who was a no-brainer. And he’s in New York.
(c) We might as well start over.
(d) Maybe we should try drafting some live bodies, for a change.
(e) What’s the area code for Helsinki?
Kekalainen’s appointment was, let us say, long overdue.
Considering his contribution to the Senators, he easily could have got the GM’s job there in 2002, but the team hired old campaigner John Muckler. Again, in 2010, when Davidson was hiring a GM in St. Louis, he chose Doug Armstrong.
Kekalainen must have felt slighted, and left to become GM of Jokerit, which currently sits atop SM-liiga, the Finnish elite league.
“I’m humbled but at the same time have faith in myself. I believe I’ve deserved this opportunity through my own hard work,” he told reporters in Helsinki. “Now I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go there and build a team out of the Columbus Blue Jackets that seriously aims to win the Stanley Cup.”
Turning it around in Columbus will be no easy task. The Blue Jackets really haven’t done much right since making the playoffs for the one and only time in 2008-09, and their record in trades and at the draft table has been abysmal.
But they have three first-round picks in this year’s draft -- their own, and the New York Rangers’ (in the Rick Nash deal) and Los Angeles Kings’ (Jeff Carter). Davidson knows it’s an opportunity the Jackets, 4-7-2 and starting a six-game Western road trip Friday in Los Angeles, can’t afford to blow.
“We know how important the draft is, and this one is a deep draft,” Davidson said. “He’ll become a major voice regarding the upcoming draft. That certainly played into it ... but it’s certainly not all of it.”
Columbus’s draft position figures to be early. The Rangers’ and Kings’ picks should come late, but Kekalainen hit some home runs with low first-rounders in St. Louis -- Oshie was 25th, Berglund 25th, and Perron 26th -- and some picks a lot later than that in Ottawa: Fisher (44th), Neil (161st), Kelly (94th), Vermette (55th), Emery (99th), and the biggest steal of them all, Salo (239th).
“When I see the three first-round picks,” Kekalainen said, “my eyes light up.”
“Jarmo and I have a relationship that goes back a number of years,” Davidson said. “I look at Jarmo as a person who has a world of experience. Thirty per cent of the players in our league are European. He’s very intelligent about the world of hockey, not only in Europe but also in North America.
“I know Jarmo’s going to have success. He’s a driven man.”
The 46-year-old, whose playing career in the NHL consisted of 55 games with Ottawa and Boston, seconded Davidson assessment.
"The passport's cover page is not why or how we draft players," he said. "If anything, I'm going to be even harder on Finnish prospects.”
The NHL hasn’t entrusted many of its on-ice operations to Europeans. Ivan Hlinka (Pittsburgh) and Alpo Suhonen (Chicago) didn’t pan out as coaches, so on the surface, Kekalainen’s hire looks like a rare leap of faith.
But former Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund, now GM of Modo in the Swedish Elite League, called the hiring “good for the sport. It opens up another door.
"It's a global game,” Naslund -- whose franchise scoring record is about to be broken by Henrik Sedin -- told the Vancouver Sun’s Brad Ziemer. “If you are a good hockey mind and prepared to put in the work that it takes, nationality shouldn't stop you.”
Shouldn’t, but does. It has been 12 years since Hlinka and Suhonen washed out in 2000-2001, and no European has been given the keys to an NHL club since. Countless losing NHL coaches of the North American persuasion have been recycled in that time.
So Jarmo Kekalainen will have a lot of hopeful European eyes on him, when the Blue Jackets -- whose health may be too frail to withstand another mistake -- head down the path he maps out for them.
No pressure, but ... he'd better win.
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