Shortly past 2 p.m. on Wednesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets rookie general manager hung up the phone with New York Rangers counterpart Glen Sather for the final time, having swung a deal for scoring winger Marian Gaborik.
“We almost ran out of time, but didn’t,” a still-relieved Kekalainen said in a phone interview Friday. “We still had to get the paperwork to the league so it was getting pushed to the limit. There wasn’t much more time with [the waiving of Gaborik’s] no-trade clause and paperwork [not finalized].”
Kekalainen and Sather first talked in late February, soon after the former’s hiring, as he introduced himself to NHL GMs by phone and inquired on their respective team needs. It wasn’t until Tuesday that he discussed Gaborik. Kekalainen and Sather talked again Wednesday morning and went back and forth until an agreement was reached.
During a hectic deadline day, Kekalainen drew from his previous NHL experience working in amateur scouting and player personnel with the likes of Larry Pleau in St. Louis and Marshall Johnston, Pierre Gauthier and Rick Dudley in Ottawa.
“I’ve always taken the approach in every job I’ve had that I listen and observe what different people are doing,” said the 46-year-old Kekalainen, the NHL’s first European GM who has now worked 11 trade deadlines in varying capacities. “I think patience is a good thing [on deadline day]. You don’t want to get overanxious about trying to complete something and push the button too quickly.
“You want to make sure that you ask everyone [on your scouting and management staff] for their opinion and they’re comfortable, so that when a decision is made it’s based on the work we’ve done. This is not an exact science so time will tell.”
Kekalainen, who made three other deals Wednesday including the acquisition of forward Blake Comeau from Calgary, celebrated Thursday with his wife Tiina and daughters Emilia, 8, and Sofia, 6, by house hunting after they flew in from their native Finland on Tuesday night.
Columbus entered Friday’s game at St. Louis 10th in the Western Conference with a 16-14-7 record, one point back of the 19-14-2 Blues for the eighth and final playoff berth in the conference.
“I think our main ingredient is still the competitiveness, the grit, heart and discipline we play with,” Kekalainen said. “Now we’ve added scoring [in Gaborik] and our goaltending’s been good on a consistent level. But there are a lot of great teams around the league, so you have to be able to play at a high level night in and night out.”
CBCSports.ca spoke to Kekalainen about the emotions of working his first deadline day as a GM, how he approached the day and how the Blue Jackets are a better team with Gaborik than with Rick Nash.
1. Describe the range of emotions as potential trades were either coming together, stalled or not gaining any traction?
Kekalainen: It’s exciting. I don’t know if nerve-racking would maybe be too strong of a way to describe it. You’re anxious to get a deal done because you’re working hard towards it and once it materializes the excitement is there even more. It’s an exciting day for sure.
I’ve been in the [war] room before in a different role but in a new role it was even more exciting. It was a great day.
2. Over the years, or maybe more recently, how did you envision your first impact trade playing out?
I envisioned myself in the [GM’s] chair making the decisions. I just wanted to try and do everything [I could] to help our team make a [playoff] push, but we knew the whole time we weren’t going to do something to sacrifice the future just for a rental [player] and that was the hard part. We wanted desperately to get some help [because] the team’s working so hard and the coaching staff’s working so hard.
Stick to the plan of keeping [our] three first-round draft picks, unless it makes sense for something in the long-term. That’s the answer we gave everybody consistently.
3. How soon after arriving in Columbus did you decide that the team needed to upgrade its talent level before the trade deadline?
I think we needed to add a little bit of offence, an offensive threat that can score big goals in key moments and take over the power play that was struggling for us. That was becoming more and clear as we were winning games 2-1, 1-0. Fortunately, [goalie Sergei] Bobrovsky’s been very, very good and kept us in every game.
But you need to score goals. It’s hard to win games 2-1 or 1-0 consistently. I think this team has a lot of great ingredients with character, work ethic and playing a really good defensive and disciplined game. I’ve seen the work ethic and the grit in every game I’ve watched.
4. Before agreeing to the Gaborik trade, did you consult with Blue Jackets players Vinny Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, all of whom played with Gaborik in New York?
We always try to do our homework, not just on scouting the player on the ice but what he’s like off the ice and what he’s like in the [dressing] room and the work ethic, what kind of athlete he is, how he lives. We certainly did that homework with Marian.
He’s been around a long time. Mike Vogt, our head athletic trainer, worked with him in Minnesota so we had a lot of different sources where we could get information on him.
5. Some people might say the Blue Jackets are back to where they were before the Rick Nash trade, possessing a star player in Marian Gaborik but few other pieces to suggest the team’s on an upward trend. How did you view things different when exploring a significant trade at the deadline?
Everybody’s entitled to their opinion. I think we have a good group of young players that are developing, guys like [centre] Ryan Johansen, [right-winger] Cam Atkinson, [left-winger] Matt Calvert. On defence, Tim Erixon, Dalton Prout. Sergei Bobrovsky’s a young goaltender. We have good leadership, too. [Forward] Artem Anisimov has been very good and he’s a young player.
I think Marian Gaborik has earned his own name around the league with three 40-plus goal seasons [most recently last season] so I think it’s a different team, a different look [from when Nash was in Columbus]. We’re still a work in progress, it’s a young team. I think we can get a lot better and I think we will get a lot better.