Blue Jackets ‘keeping options open’ ahead of NHL draft

Some NHL drafts are whirlwinds, full of blockbuster trades, surprise decisions, and plenty of rumor and intrigue.

Others are more boring affairs, with deals never reaching the finish line and players getting into the expected order.

Jarmo Kekalainen expects the 2022 version to be much more of the former than the latter.

Whether it’s the lack of consensus at the top of the draft, the reality that many teams are fighting the salary cap, or the fact that for the first time in years everyone is coming together for a draft, there seems to be one in Thursday night’s opening and Friday’s final kick will be filled with intrigue for fans and executives alike.

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“It could go the way we have it on our list and we’re going to make the 12th pick with the 12th player on our list,” the Blue Jackets general manager said Wednesday. “But I doubt it will go that way. I think it will be different where there will be some oohs and aahs and surprises in the top 10.”

Time will tell if Kekalainen — who has a total of six picks in the seven-round draft, including first-round picks at six and 12 and a second-round pick at 44 — proves correct, but there are also the reality that his team could also be in the mix of this potential chaos.

Kekalainen admitted Wednesday he has been in talks with general managers across the league about trading one of his first-round decisions and that Columbus is off to a winning draft for 2021, which includes three first-round players and a 2021-22 season scored that exceeded observers’ expectations, the GM said it may be the right time to take a step that will bring immediate relief to the Blue Jackets.

This would not be a mortgage on the future, but a chance to speed up the team’s restart a little by acquiring a young NHL player who will remain under the team’s control for many years to come.

“We’ve had a lot of phone calls between the ages of six and 12, and we’ll continue to take them and evaluate any offers that come our way and remain open-minded,” Kekalainen said. “It’s going to take a lot to move six or twelve. We’re not both going to move – I guess you never say never. We most likely won’t move both of them, but we might move one of them. But it would cost a lot.”

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The form Kekalainen is looking for is a player in his early 20s who has made it to the NHL and has at least three seasons left before entering the unrestricted free agency market.

“We’ve been saying all along that we won’t make a deal just because we need immediate help,” Kekalainen said. “It has to be someone we can build into the future with. We hold the rights to a player drafted into the league by Entry for seven years. We’re not going to trade a choice for a player we could possibly control in two years and as soon as our window opens that we’d be really ready to fight for the Stanley Cup then suddenly we don’t have that guy anymore, it doesn’t make sense.

“We’re just going to do it for a young player who’s going to be with us for a long time and someone we can build with our core and grow with our core while also filling a need. But immediate help isn’t the biggest focus. It is immediate and future-oriented and not just immediate.”

As for the draft itself, Kekalainen said Columbus has nearly 100 names on its draft committee, which is mostly complete as meetings continue as the CBJ blasters chart the exact course they will take in the coming days.

In addition to the three picks in the top 44, the Blue Jackets have their own decisions in the third round (96th overall), fourth round (109th overall), and seventh round (203rd overall).

The top of the board could be what makes the situation so intriguing as observers think there isn’t a definite future superstar topping every board. Hosts Montreal hold the first pick and are to decide between Canadian center Shane Wright, Slovakia winger Juraj Slafkovsky and American center Logan Cooley. The Canadians have also said they wouldn’t mind going up to add another high pick, while some of the other top teams in the draft have conceded relegation would be the preferred move.

Adding it all up, trades could be on the horizon, which could set off a chain reaction of madness that could affect any team.

“You never know,” Kekalainen said. “We will keep our options open.”

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