Philadelphia, PA – More so than a lot of other teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves at a fairly significant crossroad ahead of Sunday's draft.
It is then that first-year general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will have to decide what sort of team he wants to have for the upcoming season. Does he have a group that is on the cusp of being a legitimate playoff contender, or was last season's near-miss on only the franchise's second-ever postseason appearance a bit of misdirection?
One thing is certain: having three first-round picks at the 2013 draft certainly gives Kekalainen the ability to go either way.
As of now, Columbus is slated to pick 14th, 19th and 27th in what has been called one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. Those three picks will allow the Blue Jackets to either add more young talent who will be available to help the club down the road or create a package that could net Columbus immediate help.
Either way, the call is Kekalainen's to make.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Kekalainen said he would like to add some scoring to his club, but also is aware that not every, if any, player he takes in the first round on Sunday will be ready to step in at the NHL level right away. Instead, he said the draft is about building a balanced depth chart.
Still, having some added offensive firepower would be nice.
"I think the scoring part again is something that we're going to emphasize that we need scorers because that's what decides the games," the GM said. "You play good defense, you have good goaltending. Well, we have pretty good quality in those areas and now we want to get a little more scoring that we don't always have to win games 2-1."
The 46-year-old Fin became the first European general manager in NHL history when he replaced Scott Howson on Feb. 13. Prior to joining Columbus, Kekalainen was the president and general manager of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League after having served as director of amateur scouting and assistant general manager during his time with the St. Louis Blues from 2002-10.
Kekalainen worked in St. Louis under John Davidson, the current president of the Blue Jackets, and the duo had a similar situation with the Blues in 2007. St. Louis had three picks in the first round of that draft, selecting forward Lars Eller (13th overall), defenseman Ian Cole (18th) and winger David Perron (26th).
Of those three, only Perron has had an impact on the Blues' current roster.
But before Kekalainen decides what to do with his three picks on Sunday, he has to decide how close his team is to being a consistent contender. After all, the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs just once in 12 seasons as an NHL franchise, but were as close as they could get to a playoff spot at the conclusion of the 2012-23 lockout-shortened season without actually nabbing one.
Columbus ended the season tied with the Minnesota Wild for the eighth and final playoff position in the Western Conference, but had three fewer non- shootout wins, leaving them on the outside due to the tiebreaker.
There are many signs that point to the Blue Jackets being ready to contend now. They have a solid core that includes an on-ice leader in Brandon Dubinsky and a top-tier defenseman in Jack Johnson, both acquired in trades under Howson's watch. Kekalainen himself pulled off a deal to get slumping scorer Marian Gaborik from the New York Rangers prior to the most recent trade deadline, and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky - another Howson trade - took home the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender.
But Gaborik also managed just 12 goals in 47 games last season, including three in 12 with the Blue Jackets, and Bobrovsky is slated to become a restricted free agent. That normally wouldn't be a big deal, but the Kontinental Hockey League is reportedly making a big push to bring the Russian netminder back to his home country.
However, Kekalainen said he is confident he will be able to re-sign the netminder.
"Nobody wants to lose the Vezina winner goalie, that would be foolish to say," Kekalainen said.
In the back of Kekalainen's mind has be a thought that perhaps his team overachieved during a quirky and condensed schedule due to the lockout and if the Blue Jackets would have sustained success deep into a normal season.
One thing working in the GM's favor is the lack of pressure on his club to win a championship. At this point, Columbus residents would probably be happy with a trip to the playoffs, so the bar is already set low.
With that in mind, it probably makes sense for Kekalainen to utilize the draft to its full potential, with moving up the only trade he should entertain. After all, if he thinks Columbus is close to being a contender, he could probably land an established veteran made available due to the compliance buyouts. That list is already expected to include Vincent Lecavalier and Danny Briere, while Brad Richards also could be made available.
Kekalainen said on Tuesday it would have to be an impressive offer for him to part with one of his early picks.
"It would have to be something that makes a lot of sense because it is a good draft, it's a deep draft like everyone has talked about, so if we're going to trade away a first-round pick, it's going to have to be a player that makes a lot of sense for us now and going into the future," he noted.
When asked if trading into the top five in the draft is a possible, Kekalainen replied, "We're not going to go crazy and try to get there just for the sake of getting there. If the price gets too steep, we're just going to stay where we are."
Of course, it is well known that the draft is always a gamble, even if this particular one is considered deep. Just look at Columbus' recent history in the first round.
Since hitting a home run with the Rick Nash selection first overall in 2002, few first-rounders have had an impact with the Jackets.
Columbus grabbed Nikolai Zherdev, Alexandre Picard and Gilbert Brule, respectively, in the first round of the next three drafts after taking Nash and all underachieved, as did the sixth overall pick of the '08 draft, Nikita Filatov, who never found favor with former head coach Ken Hitchcock and was eventually traded.
Derick Brassard (2006) and John Moore ('09) were both sent to the Rangers in the deal for Gaborik and found success down the stretch in New York, while Jakub Voracek was part of the package sent to the Philadelphia Flyers ahead of the 2011 draft for high-scoring winger Jeff Carter.
Carter was never happy in Columbus and was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings during the 2011 campaign for Johnson and what turned out to be the 27th pick in this year's draft. Carter, though, won a Stanley Cup with the Kings that season, so call it a win-win at best for the Jackets.
Columbus' other extra pick this year came when it dealt Nash to the Rangers prior to the season. That 19th overall selection came packaged with Dubinsky, Tim Erixon and Artem Anisimov, who the Blue Jackets just re-signed to a three- year deal.
Blue Jackets fans can take solace in the fact that Kekalainen has made some good draft selections before. While a member of the Ottawa Senators' hockey operations department from 1995-2002, he helped oversee a number of drafts that included the selections of Jason Spezza, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Ray Emery.
Players drafted by the Blues during Kekalainen's time there include David Backes, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie as well as defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, so the current GM of the Blue Jackets knows how important the draft is to a franchise.
It is no different in 2013.
"It's very important, obviously," Kekalainen said of Sunday's draft. "It's a great opportunity, so don't waste an opportunity when it's there. You don't very often get three first-round picks and everyone says that it's a good draft, so it's an opportunity to get three very good players in the positions that we're in now."
Kekalainen has some big decisions coming up, and which road he decides to go down will have a lasting impact on the Blue Jackets for the foreseeable future.