Refreshingly straightforward Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen was open and honest with Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman recently when asked about his teams short-term and long-term objectives. The Blue Jackets surprised many this past season with their stellar play, reaching 108 points on the year – a franchise record by a significant margin. Yet, Columbus was easily dispatched by the Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Kekalainen understands that his team must get better if they ever want to reach their first Stanley Cup, but he is not worried. Kekalainen told Friedman that they “are not thinking short-term. Our window is not just open now. We are only cracking the window.” Kekalainen clearly believes that his young, talented team can compete for a long time – even with a difficult Expansion Draft situation looming – without having to worry entirely about just the next couple of seasons.
When discussing what exactly he want to do to improve the team, Kekalainen named a number one center and a “sniper in the key moments” as the biggest needs. He expands on the desire for a “sniper” by stating that the team will look internally and externally for players with greater finish around the net. In 2016-17, Cam Atkinson had a breakout year with a career-best 35 goals, courtesy of a 14.6% shooting percentage. Captain Nick Foligno and rookie Josh Anderson also broke the 14% shooting mark, while others like Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad, and Brandon Dubinsky topped the NHL average, generally somewhere around 9%. Yet, other key contributors including every starting defenseman, Boone Jenner, and William Karlsson were not as lucky with their accuracy. Kekalainen hopes to add players who can make up for some of those missed opportunities with a better eye for putting the puck in the back of the net.
One player who has been known as a “sniper” and may also fit the bill as a top center one day is Oliver Bjorkstrand. The 2013 third-round pick was nearly unstoppable as a junior player with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, but has cooled down since turning pro in 2015-16 with just pedestrian AHL numbers. He also has largely moved completely to right wing in that time as well. Yet, last season Bjorkstrand played in 26 games with the Blue Jackets, recording 55 shots and scoring six goals for a 10.9% shooting percentage. He also scored four goals in 12 NHL games in his rookie season. Some more ice time, possibly even some back at center, in 2017-18 could be an internal solution for Columbus’ need for finish. However, in speaking with Friedman, Kekalainen made no mention of Bjorkstrand as the answer to either problem. He also left Wennberg out of the mix for an internal number one center, even though the 22-year-old had an outstanding campaign in exactly that role, recording 13 goals and 46 assists. Wennberg is by no means a “sniper”, but if Kekalainen can separate the two biggest needs of his team, Wennberg certainly has the appearance of a potential top-31 center in the NHL down the road.
The two players tabbed by Kekalainen, the former as possible top center option and the latter as a potential elite NHL finisher, were unsurprisingly 2016 third-overall selection Pierre-Luc Dubois and 2015 third-rounder Keegan Kolesar. Dubois nearly made the Blue Jackets out of camp in 2016-17, but was sent back to junior before he could make his NHL debut. After a somewhat disappointing junior season production-wise, aside from a strong QMJHL postseason run, Dubois appears to have outgrown juniors and should be in Columbus next season. He possesses high-end two-way ability and hockey IQ and has unique strength, both with and without the puck, for his age. While it remains to be seen if Dubois can stick at center in the NHL rather than move to left wing, where many scouts projected him even before he was drafted, Dubois is very likely to make an impact for the Jackets next season and surely could be an option at number one center. Meanwhile, Kolesar may not be ready for the big-time next season, but when he does arrive, the 6’2″, 223-lb. right wing will also bring with him a developed two-way game. However, where Kolesar catches your eye is his finish: he can capitalize around the net and he can strike from afar with a great shot. Kolesar could be that “sniper” that Kekalainen is looking for, but not for a few more years.