- Craig Custance
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen has a little grin, almost enjoying seeing his colleagues uncomfortable for a moment. To his left, president John Davidson and new assistant general manager Bill Zito are sitting, plugging their ears in anticipation of the Blue Jackets cannon about to go off.
"Here it comes!" Kekalainen says while the Blue Jackets take the ice before Thursday's final preseason game for Columbus.
Kekalainen points toward Davidson and Zito as the cannon goes off.
"It gets me every time," Zito says.
The first impression of Kekalainen is that he looks more like a Finnish Bond villain than an NHL GM. He's wearing a slim-fitting designer suit, Christian Dior frames and doesn't look like the typical hockey guy who spent 15 years on the road scouting players while working his way up to his current position. He's a cerebral thinker, a good listener and when he talks, it's in a low tone with a seriousness that carries extra weight with each word.
But here, in a Nationwide Arena suite near the corner of the ice, that seriousness lifts. Kekalainen has a mischievous side, and he seems to enjoy messing with those sitting around him. And it's an impressive group sitting around him.
Davidson, the man who brought the drastic culture change to Columbus with his hiring last October, sits in the corner and is the most vocal of the group. When anthem singer Leo Welsh steps forward to sing, he joins the Nationwide Arena crowd in shouting "Leo" as Welsh's name is introduced. Later, when the Blue Jackets go on a power play, he almost gives a play-by-play of the action on the ice. Moments before Nikita Nikitin scores a first-period goal, it's Davidson who shouts "There it is!" anticipating the scoring chance.
Sitting to Davidson's right is Zito, the man who gave up his successful hockey agency to join an old friend in Kekalainen as they try to turn around a franchise still looking for its first playoff win. This happens to be the same night that Zito's former client Tim Thomas signed a one-year deal with the Panthers that could be worth $3.75 million if he hits all his bonuses. If Zito is upset he's no longer getting a cut of those millions, there's no sign of it. His focus is squarely on the team skating on the ice.
And to Kekalainen's right, sitting off to himself on a few empty rows of seats in the suite is former Penguins GM Craig Patrick, his legs crossed on top of the seats in front of him. It's truly a unique mix of experience and skills sets, from the connected Davidson to the tough-negotiating Zito, who once got Ville Leino a $27 million deal that looks even more impressive in a current climate where free agents sit unsigned.
Right now, he's the target of Kekalainen's dry humor.
"Look at Billy Zito, revolutionizing scouting," Kekalainen says, giving his friend a hard time.
Zito is speaking into his iPhone every few moments almost like he's having a nonstop conversation with Siri. Move closer to hear what he's saying, and that's exactly what's happening.
"Bob made some really good, tough saves on shots from the slot early," Zito observes into his phone as Siri transcribes his comment into text. "He seems focused." Meanwhile, the more traditional scouting sheet of paper is in front of him, largely untouched. Once the game ends, Zito emails himself the transcribed comments and immediately has a typed-up report of the game.
"You should do it too," he says to a reporter scribbling barely legible notes onto a filled-up notepad.
With the new regime and a strong finish last season, expectations have changed wildly in Columbus heading into 2013-14. Those who were around at the start of the 2013 campaign have noted the drastic difference. The attitude from the players is better. There's a new energy from the sales staff, who have seen an increase in season-ticket purchases. None of that was here at the start of last season, as a lockout lifted to reveal a team with no identity and precious little hope.
"Last year, the body language was bad when I first started," said Davidson, sitting in his office before the game. "Everybody kind of had a sense of, 'Who are we? What are we going to be in goal? Who is going to score? Can we keep the puck out of the net?'"
Slowly, those questions got answered. Davidson set the tone from the top of the organization, letting the players know that this group will be one of the league's most hard-working. If they weren't on board with that, they were gone.
Behind the bench, Minnesota native Todd Richards instilled his Midwestern blue-collar attitude into a group of players tired of losing. The focus was on working hard and keeping the puck out of the net, the strengths of the team. At that point, really the only strengths they had. And to start the season, the Blue Jackets did those things without reward. They lost close game after close game, but to their credit, the players stuck with Richards and losses became wins.
Those wins coincided with a stretch when goalie Sergei Bobrovsky started playing like he was from another planet.
"You see this commercial?" Kekalainen says during a break in the first period. The attention in the suite turns to the scoreboard, where a video plays splicing Bobrovsky saves with clips from "Man of Steel." There's a highlight of Bobrovsky stoning Devin Setoguchi, then a clip of Superman in his red cape. The saves come faster and faster until it concludes with Bobrovsky reaching out for a puck on the ice in slow motion, as a deep, loud voice says, "You can save them. You can save all of them."
The arenacam cuts live to Bobrovsky in net as R.E.M.'s 1986 song "Superman" plays over the loudspeaker. "I am Superman and I can do anything," the song goes.
Down the stretch last season, it seemed that way with Bobrovsky. In January, Bobrovsky started five games and had a 2.97 goals-against average with a .907 save percentage, numbers resembling what we saw in his final season in Philadelphia. Then it got crazy.
In March, he went 9-2-3, with a .950 save percentage. With the Blue Jackets making an improbable attempt to crash the playoffs, he kept it going in April with a 9-3-0 record and .941 save percentage. He finished the season with a .932 save percentage and a Vezina Trophy. He probably would have claimed the Hart Trophy too if Columbus had made the playoffs.
It was a great run, but the reality is that hockey history is filled with goalies who perform otherworldly for short stretches, only to follow it up with mediocrity. The numbers have a way of working themselves out over the long haul, and expecting Bobrovsky to produce save percentages like that again this season isn't realistic. It's not kryptonite, it's just math.
What Bobrovsky has going for him is that he's a great student, evidenced by the changes he made in his game to play bigger in net than he is. He's a relentless worker, and the success of last season hasn't changed that.
"Nope," Richards said before the game. "He's down to earth. Very respectful to his teammates. Very respectful to the game. He knows it's all about his work. He's done his work. I'm watching him in practice, watching him in games. I think winning the award has driven him even more. I really do."
From the outside, this looks like a team that might be headed a step backward in the standings this season. The result of their remarkable run last season was 55 points, the same total as the No. 8 seed Minnesota Wild. For them to finish in a playoff spot this season, the Blue Jackets have to outplay new Metropolitan Division rivals like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, all of them further along in the development phase.
The Blue Jackets are young. Their oldest player is 32-year-old Derek MacKenzie. They need 21-year-old Ryan Johansen to take that next step this season. They need 24-year-old Cam Atkinson to stay healthy and start producing offensively as he's shown he can in the AHL.
Prospects Ryan Murray and Boone Jenner have been training camp standouts, evolving from players who might not make the team to guys who are now pushing the older players. Murray has put a shoulder injury behind him, and is showing the kind of poise and calm on defense that made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2012. But they're both only 20 years old. Murray just barely.
Kekalainen and his staff are still building organizational depth, and you wonder if this group can withstand the injuries that will come over an 82-game season. They already have to wait months for free agent addition Nathan Horton to recover from shoulder surgery, and they won't rush him. If he's not ready until January, he's not ready until January.
With the high caliber of those who make up the front office in Columbus, there's little doubt something good is being built for the long term. Still, there are expectations now. Maybe the success of last season has made those expectations unreasonably high, but to those in charge, it beats having no expectations at all.
"We should be better than last year. Why not?" Davidson said. "We've got to believe in ourselves as a team that's going to battle and we are. Where we are going to end up? I couldn't tell you."
ESPN Insider Craig Custance was invited behind the scenes for a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets with GM Jarmo Kekalainen, president John Davidson and assistant GM Bill Zito.