COLUMBUS, Ohio - Jarmo Kekalainen was a couple of minutes late for his first news conference as the Columbus Blue Jackets' new general manager.
"I apologize for being a little late," he said sheepishly. "I got lost in the building. Trying to find my way around."
Now the former Ottawa Senators and St. Louis Blues executive is charged with the task of guiding the floundering Blue Jackets from the depths of the NHL.
He has a clear opinion on how he wants to do that.
"I believe in fast hockey, I believe in quick hockey, not only in terms of skating, but thinking and the instincts for the game," he said. "Character, heart and instincts and hockey sense are going to be the key things we're going to be looking at when we're scouting players, whether it's pros or amateurs. Because I think that translates best to fast hockey."
The 46-year-old Kekalainen inherits a Blue Jackets team that has made the playoffs just once in its 11 previous seasons (2008-09) and has never won a post-season game. Columbus had the worst record in the NHL a year ago and is back in the basement again this season.
The Blue Jackets are just 5-12-2 for 12 points so far, and have scored fewer goals than all but one team (Minnesota) in the 30-team league.
Kekalainen, hired last week to replace Scott Howson who was fired after 5-plus years as GM, joined the team last week for the final three games of a six-game road trip. He said he saw some things he liked, despite being on hand for two one-goal losses along with a last-minute, 3-2 victory at Detroit on Thursday night in his first game with the team.
"We've worked hard as a team," he said. "There's a lot of positive things you can build on."
Todd Richards is in his first full year as coach after taking over midway through last season when Scott Arniel was fired. He was brought aboard by Howson and is still in the primary stages of getting to know Kekalainen.
"It's still a feeling-out period, but we're starting to have that dialogue that coaches and general managers have," Richards said on Tuesday after his club's morning skate.
John Davidson, the Blue Jackets' president of hockey operations who worked with Kekalainen in St. Louis, has also been pleased with how hard the current club is playing. But he said that is nothing to necessarily be proud of. It's expected.
"Listen, we have to work hard," he said after Howson's firing. "Other teams work hard and some of them may have more talent than us. So we have to work hard. We don't and we don't have a chance. We all understand that. Everybody in the organization does and most nights it's been really a good effort."
Kekalainen, who was GM of Jokerit in his native Finland when hired by Columbus, is known as a shrewd evaluator of amateur talent. He is taking time to go through computer and video files on players to gauge what the Blue Jackets should do by the April 3 trade deadline (most likely dealing several veterans for draft picks or prospects) and how they will handle the amateur draft this summer. Columbus has three first-round picks.
He said he'd keep an open mind on all current players as the deadline looms.
The draft will be the most important in franchise history, Davidson said. Kekalainen, who played just 55 games with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators 1989-94, looks forward to making the most of what many are calling a deep and talented draft.
"It's the best way for an organization to get top players without giving up a lot," he said. "Those three first-round picks are going to be a great opportunity for us to get some top players into our organization, and then to develop them in the proper way to become core players for this team for years to come."
Kekalainen's wife, Tiina, and daughers Emilia (8) and Sofia (5) remain back in Finland. But they'll visit soon and then the plan is to settle into a new home before school starts in the fall.
In the meantime, Kekalainen will be trying to erase a losing culture with the Blue Jackets. He declined to address mistakes that had been made before in Columbus. Instead, he said he only wanted to talk about a bright future.
"I'm going to establish some things with the team, trying to build a fresh start and a good future and sustained success," he said. "I'm going to do everything that I can to send the right message, to build the right kind of culture, improve the culture, learn from the past if we can and move forward."
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