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A glimpse into the new Blue Jackets GM

2/15/2013

For T.J. Oshie, it was an eye-opener. He'd just graduated high school and was going through the gauntlet of pre-draft talks with NHL teams when he met Jarmo Kekalainen during an interview with the St. Louis Blues.

The new Columbus Blue Jackets general manager was then the Blues' director of amateur scouting, and his intensity stood out among the countless meetings Oshie had that day.

"He actually showed me the proper way to do a squat in the middle of the interview, just telling me he wants me to go all the way down," said Oshie, whom the Blues drafted with the No. 24 overall pick in 2005. "I was like, 'Oh boy, I have some work ahead of me.' "

At least Kekalainen showed interest in Oshie's well-being. Other draft prospects remember meeting Kekalainen, getting absolutely grilled during a series of questions, then leaving the interview never expecting to hear from the Blues again.

Patrik Berglund and David Perron fall into that category.

"It was really tough. You got that feeling that, 'OK, I don't think I'll play for St. Louis,' when you walked out of that room," Berglund said. "He was just really harsh. He didn't put on a smile or anything. For an 18-year-old kid, 17-year-old kid, it was kind of, at the time, overwhelming. You didn't really know how to act toward him. He was really hard and obviously that was his job to find out who was good and who wasn't."

Berglund thought Kekalainen had no interest in him. It was actually the opposite. In 2006, the Blues traded up to make sure they could grab him with the No. 25 pick in the first round.

Perron realizes now there was a point to the intense interviews. Kekalainen wanted to see how a young player responded to pressure, to try and reveal character in that short period of face time before the draft.

"It was almost like you were [giving] the wrong answers, where I guess we were answering the right ones," Perron said. "They want to push the buttons and get as much truth as they could out of you."

A glance around the Blues' dressing room shows that Kekalainen's strategy works. It's loaded with homegrown talent that includes those three, along with guys like Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko. And he was just as successful identifying talent during his time in Ottawa.

With three first-round picks in June, the Blue Jackets approach the most important draft in team history, and considering Kekalainen's skills as a talent evaluator, along with the team's needs, there may be some attempts to accumulate even more picks during a deep draft.

The Columbus roster doesn't include too many rentals, but there may be a market for a player like Derick Brassard, who has one year left, with a cap hit of $3.2 million. Goalie Steve Mason has shown signs of improvement and is a restricted free agent after this season. He could be attractive to a team looking for insurance in goal, especially because he comes with upside.

Kekalainen still has plenty of time to sort that out and to dust off his NHL draft interview questions. Now, on to the Friday mailbag:

How crazy is this? [Roberto] Luongo to St. Louis, [Vladimir] Tarasenko and [Ian] Cole to Colorado, [Ryan] O'Reilly to Vancouver. I know these teams just want to deal with the East, but this would make sense.

Rudy L., Seattle

Yeah, that's pretty crazy. First of all, when was the last time you saw a three-team trade with such high-profile players? I realize the Blues' goaltending is shaky right now, but this team believes in Jaroslav Halak and has him signed through next season. They're a budget team (remarkably winning with the league's lowest payroll, per CapGeek.com) and can't afford to commit that much money to goaltending when you add in Luongo's contract. So of the three teams mentioned in your scenario, I'd say the Blues would object the most to your proposal.

Best R.E.M. album of all time.

Chris, Chicago

Which album was your biggest disappointment of the 90's? REM "Monster"?

John Kane, @BDKane4

Great questions. I'm really glad to see our daily '90s alternative rock debates on Twitter seeping into the mailbag. I chose to ignore the mailbag question regarding Nickelback (Sorry, Jon Alcoff from Philly!) because I didn't want to pile on. As for the best R.E.M. album, I'd consider "Out of Time," because it has my favorite R.E.M. song on it in "Country Feedback." But its commercial success means it wouldn't be cool to pick it, plus "Radio Song" makes it ineligible. For me, it's "Automatic for the People." Start to finish, it holds up remarkably well. I'm going to give it a listen right now. As for biggest disappointment of the '90s, that's a tough one. I actually didn't hate "Monster." What about Oasis' follow-up to "(What's the Story) Morning Glory?" I couldn't name you one song from "Be Here Now." And "Adore," the Smashing Pumpkins' followup to "Mellon Collie," was a letdown. Also, I know you want me to answer with Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy" and I'm not going to do it.

Editor's Note: Any suggestion that "Vitalogy" was a letdown is utterly and completely erroneous. The greatness contained on that album -- to wit, "Corduroy," "Nothingman," "Immortality" and "Better Man," to name but four tracks appearing on Pearl Jam's best-of album -- is merely masked by the transcendence of its predecessors, "Ten" and "Vs." To label "Vitalogy" a letdown is like suggesting Sidney Crosby is a letdown because he hasn't matched Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Not measuring up to two of the greatest albums of all time does not a letdown make! Thank you to Craig, for letting me shout down this inaccurate inference. The defense rests.

Is Willie Mitchell the Tim Thomas of the West Coast? He's been cleared to play for several weeks. The Kings D is depleting faster than weed at a Bob Marley concert. His team needs him. What is the delay?

Chris Cap, L.A.

Chris,
I was in L.A. when Mitchell returned to the ice to test his knee injury and it was clear he wasn't going to rush his return. He said he pushed it too hard during the lockout and that cost him time in his recovery. I'm sure Kings management and the coaching staff aren't thrilled that Mitchell is making sure he's completely comfortable before returning to the ice despite getting clearance from doctors. It's a tough call considering the injuries to the defense in L.A., but it's more important that he's healthy for the playoffs than for games in early February. He knows his body better than anyone and I tend to side with a player when it comes to knowing when they're ready. If he starts buying a bunch of acreage in Colorado, then I'd be concerned.

I am no stats expert, but aside from the shorter schedule, won't it be more difficult for teams with slow starts to make up points because of the schedule? In most years, teams play out-of-conference games. Accordingly, a team in the Eastern Conference can bank on teams ahead of them losing games to teams in the Western Conference and vice versa (which would mean no movement in the Eastern Conference standings). This year, however, with teams only playing in their conference, every game leads to a team gaining points in the conference standings. It seems like this would make it more difficult to make up ground because teams above you in the standings will inevitably be adding points every game.

Ryan, Washington D.C.

Correct.

Hi Craig, as a Ducks fan who is still feeling the effects of Paul Kariya's leaving us all those years ago, I am terrified by the lack of progress in the talks regarding new contracts for Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Is it possible that we could lose both these players as well as [Teemu] Selanne at the end of the season? Please give me some positive news! Thanks!

Tom Moeller, Foothill Ranch, California

I spent a lot of time yesterday talking to players with the Ducks and walked away convinced that this short season is the perfect setup for them. Saku Koivu said he's never felt better and more refreshed to start a season and you can see it in the way he's playing. Selanne loves the short season, said he hates the first half of the normal season. It's a grind for these older players and the Ducks seem poised to capitalize on the short season. As for the contract situation, I think Anaheim gets one of the two players done. Colleague Pierre LeBrun has reported that Getzlaf is more likely to sign than Perry, and I agree. I wouldn't be surprised to see Perry leave in free agency. As for Teemu, he might play forever. In the meantime, enjoy the fast start and worry about those contracts later. That's a fun team you've got there.

You did not discuss trading Ovi. His performance in 2011, 2012 and this year has been so disappointing to Caps fans. Please discuss.

Eugene Cassel, Washington, D.C

I just don't think trading Ovechkin is a realistic option. For one, Adam Oates really believes he's made to play in his system as the ideal right winger. It's just going to take time for Ovechkin to get comfortable playing for his third coach since the start of last season. But we're seeing signs of improvement, right? Before last night's game against Tampa (another Caps win, by the way), Ovechkin had goals in three straight and now has seven points in seven games. That's a great sign for Capitals fans. He's still the face of that franchise, and when you factor in his contract, I think any trade talk regarding the Washington captain is a stretch.