Blue Jackets view 2021 Draft as game changer with three first-round picks

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The 2021 NHL Draft will be held July 23-24. The first round will be July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW, TVAS) and rounds 2-7 are July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW). NHL.com is counting down to the draft with in-depth profiles on top prospects and other features. Today, a look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have three picks in the first round. NHL.com’s full draft coverage can be found here.

The Columbus Blue Jackets view having three first-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft as a franchise-altering opportunity.

“It can truly be a game changer if you nail three picks and they all become players, and better yet if they become impact players,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said.

The Blue Jackets have the No. 5 pick, and the No. 25 selection, acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the trade for forward Nick Foligno, and the No. 32 choice, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the trade for defenseman David Savard.

The first round of the 2021 Draft is July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW), with rounds 2-7 on July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW).

 

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This will be 12th occurrence of a team having three first-round picks since 2005, but the third opportunity for Kekalainen.

At the 2013 NHL Draft, Kekalainen’s first as GM, Columbus selected forwards Alex Wennberg (No. 14), Kerby Rychel (No. 19) and Marko Dano (No. 27). Only Wennberg had a significant role, scoring 201 points (40 goals, 161 assists) in 415 games before agreeing to a one-year contract with the Florida Panthers on Oct. 9, 2020. Rychel played 37 games from 2014-16 and was traded to the Maple Leafs on Feb. 25, 2018. Dano played 38 games in two stints with Columbus, including three last season.

Kekalainen was director of amateur scouting for the St. Louis Blues when they chose forwards Lars Eller (No. 13) and David Perron (No. 26), and defenseman Ian Cole (No. 18) at the 2007 NHL Draft.

Each of those players has won the Stanley Cup, Perron with the Blues in 2019. Eller with the Washington Capitals in 2018, and Cole with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017.

“If you don’t draft well, you have no chance,” Kekalainen said. “No chance. And that’s just plain and simple in my opinion. You can look at any team that’s been successful, they drafted well. And you can look at the teams that haven’t had success, they haven’t drafted as well. And that’s the lifeline. That’s the best way to get better.”

So how does Kekalainen help the Blue Jackets have an outcome closer to what he accomplished with the Blues? Having a staff he knows and trusts is one way.

He helped build the amateur scouting department during his time in St. Louis. In Columbus, he replaced Scott Howson on Feb. 13, 2013 and had to work with scouts he was unfamiliar with.

The Blue Jackets list for the 2021 draft will be put together by director of amateur scouting Ville Siren, who worked with Kekalainen for the Blues from 2003-10 before joining the Blue Jackets on July 8, 2013.

“The scouts do the work, they do the lists, they put it together and we’ve got to let them do their job,” Kekalainen said. “You listen, you run the meetings, you give them direction and the type of player we want. You give them the platform of what we use and the evaluation system that we use, but at the end of the day they do the work and they put the players in order and then we make our picks accordingly.”

A difficult task in a normal season, Siren’s job was made more onerous because of restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been difficult because some leagues are playing, some leagues are not playing, some guys have COVID,” Siren said. “It has been very difficult, but it has been the same for everybody. So nobody has an advantage.”

Despite the obstacles, Siren said he’s thrilled about the opportunity having three first-round picks. He was a European scout with the Blues for the 2007 Draft and was instrumental in the selection of Eller, who was playing for Frolunda in Sweden’s junior league.

“We have a good opportunity to do something so exciting,” Siren said. “There’s always pressure. But you just have to believe, trust your work that you have done during the season and just execute.”

Kekalainen said his philosophy for the 2021 draft hasn’t changed since 2007: take the best player they believe is available. However, he understands where the Blue Jackets have needs.

“It’s been well documented that we’re a little bit thin on the center ice area both in our team and prospects,” he said. “That’s an area of need. And you never have too many defensemen.”

But having those three picks also allows for more than just the addition of three blue-chip prospects.

“We’re going to explore all the options like we always do,” Kekalainen said. “Could be something through Seattle. Could be a trade with another team before the [2021 NHL Expansion Draft presented by Upper Deck] if we can fit [a player] into the protected list. So lots of different things that we can look at.”

The previous times Kekalainen’s teams had three first-round picks he was able to call three names. Whether he calls one, two or three July 23, the focus will be making sure it’s the right ones.

“You don’t have to necessarily draft pretty good NHL players to get them onto your roster,” he said. “But if you want an impact player, you’re pretty much going to have to draft them and get both lucky and be good at what you do.”

Listen: New episode of NHL Draft Class

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