At a time when trades are almost impossible to pull off in the NHL, Jarmo Kekäläinen is making it look easy.
Within a span of six months, the general manager of the Blue Jackets has engineered a pair of bold, franchise altering deals that have other teams looking on in envy. In June, he took advantage of cap issues in Chicago to craft a seven-player trade that brought Brandon Saad, the finest young power forward in the game, to Columbus. “A big win for the Jackets,” a rival exec said at the time. “A big win for Jarmo.”
He may have topped that Wednesday by sending center Ryan Johansen to the Nashville Predators in exchange for defenseman Seth Jones.
It’s a stunning swap, the very definition of a blockbuster. And it highlights Kekäläinen's ability to get a deal done where others can't.
Saad was one thing, a brilliant display of vision and opportunism. Johansen was something else entirely. The team’s No. 1 center had become it’s No. 1 headache in the wake of a vicious contract negotiation and a slow, disinterested start to this season. After a benching and some tough words in the press from coach John Tortorella, it was apparent the relationship between the player and the organization was damaged, possibly beyond repair.
Rumors swirled for weeks that Johansen was being shopped, but there were concerns. How could the Jackets possibly get full value for a poisoned asset?
Kekäläinen did that, and then some, in acquiring Jones. The 21-year-old blueliner is a building block, a player with franchise potential. He won’t turn around a defense that has allowed a league-worst 131 goals by himself, not this year, anyway. But adding him now is like New Jersey adding a young Scott Stevens or St. Louis adding a young Chris Pronger. Jones will be a game changer.
It’s a coup for the Jackets, who may be better now by subtraction and addition.
That’s not to suggest David Poile was fleeced here. Nashville’s GM recognized his own organizational need for a true, franchise center, the type of player he hasn’t been able to obtain through the draft or free agency.
They don’t come on the market often. And when they do, they don’t come cheap ... even a distressed player like Johansen. So Poile did exactly what he was supposed to do. He dealt from a position of strength—a blueline that arguably was the deepest in the league—and grabbed a player whose 71-point effort in 2014-15 suggests he’s capable of sparking Nashville’s 18th ranked offense and possibly turning the Preds from a pretender to a contender.
It wasn’t an easy trade to make. The consensus around the league was the Jones was the one untouchable player on Nashville’s roster. And in taking on Johansen, Poile assumed the larger risk. The big center comes to Nashville wearing more question marks than The Riddler. Poile will find out along with the rest of us if his problems this season are reflective of his own commitment level or his issues with Blue Jackets coaches and management. He’s out on a limb, but with the window closing on core veterans like Pekka Rinne and Shea Weber, this was a risk Poile had to take.
While the Preds go for it now, the Jackets begin the process of identifying a new No. 1 center. Brandon Dubinsky, already averaging better than 18 minutes a night, will get the first look. Alexander Wennberg and William Karlsson will be challenged to step up a line. Maybe more.
If there are struggles along the way, so be it. It’s all part of the process for a rebuilding team. And if they remain locked in the Eastern Conference cellar, maybe they’ll find their next top center at the draft.
Auston Matthews or Jesse Puljujarvi in Union Blue? The way Kekäläinen's year is going, it’s almost bound to happen.