It hasn’t exactly been a smooth off-season for the St. Louis Blues. Although fresh GM Doug Armstrong should feel like he’s in a sweet position as he all of a sudden has an opportunity to re-shape the organization the way he sees fit. Since the season ended barely over a month ago The Blues decided to keep Head Coach Davis Payne, fired AHL Coach Rick Wamsley, and now learn scouting guru and Assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen is leaving the organization for the Finnish Elite League.
You could easily argue no person in the Blues organization has had a larger impact over the last 5-6 years than Kekalainen. Blues management did him a favor by offering him a lot to play with in terms of high draft picks but still it’s hard to have any issues with how Jarmo performed. Trading away guys like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin, and Keith Tkachuk all fetched first round in return and allowed the Blues to get back on their feet rather quickly.
Assembling a quality scouting staff shouldn’t be ignored either but at the end of the day the Blues are in pretty decent shape moving forward primarily because of this guy.
Kekalainen and the Blues insist the offer to become both President and GM of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League was too good to turn down. The Owner of the club made Kekalainen feel extremely wanted and the persistence would eventually pay off. Everyone from John Davidson on down was somewhat blindsided by the news as Kekalainen had one year remaining on his contract. Obviously the Blues were not going to stop Kekalainen from moving on where he has an opportunity to take care of his family financially and the security of a five year contract.
That’s assuming he stays in Finland for five years. His dream has always been to manage an NHL club and I personally believe he’ll one day become the first ever European to do so.
Monday morning Kekalainen said to me “I’ve never been one to give up on my dreams, I don’t plan on doing it now.”
I’m hearing in NHL circles that Kekalainen is leaving because he was a Larry Pleau guy and is being pushed out by Armstrong. C’mon, anyone who tells you this is reaching here.
Of course Jarmo was upset when he was passed over by Armstrong to become Pleau’s successor. It goes without saying he wanted the job but as he jokingly puts it “I was benched as a player and I was benched in management.”
To simplify things here, Jarmo was too good at what he does to the point the Blues didn’t want to promote him. They needed him to continue in the same capacity because they knew this was best for the organization. It may not have been what’s best for Kekalainen, but it worked out pretty well for the Blues.
Being an amateur scout is no joke. These guys travel through blizzards in North America to the middle of nowhere in Lavtia, Russia, or the Czech Republic to see an NHL prospect play hockey. I don’t think he’s spent the last 10 plus years of his life traveling the world for nothing. Kekalainen is ready for a new challenge. Kekalainen is out to prove he's much.much more than just a scout.
Jokerit is located in the Nation’s capital where hockey is treated similarly to what we see in Toronto. The organization plays in a newly built state of the art NHL arena stocked with luxury suites. Hartwell Areena (Finnish spelling) will host two NHL regular season games this fall between Carolina and Minnesota. Many former and current NHL players have played there including Tim Thomas, Kari Lehtonen, Ville Leino, Valtteri Filppula, Glen Metropolit, and legends Teemu Selanne, and Jari Kurri to name a few. Chicago D-man Brian Campbell played there during the lockout in 2004.
The Blues have some very credible replacement candidates already inside the organization. European socut Ville Siren is responsible for guys like Lars Eller and Patrik Berglund, Danny Ginnel, the son of the legendary Pat Ginnel, has been successful eyeing NHL talent in Western Canada, and Bill Armstrong, who handles the Quebec League and Eastern USA, is responsible drafting several players including David Perron. Minnesota socut Mike Antonovich, who spotted the likes of T.J.Oshie and David Backes, is also worthy of discussion but is unlikely to be interested in taking on the task of Asst. GM.
This past year Jarmo was more involved on the pro scouting side and the above mentioned individuals spent more time than usual crossing over and scouting players outside of their area. The three of these guys were responsible for creating a “consensus” top 30 list for the upcoming NHL draft in which Kekalainen will remain in charge.
There’s something to be said of an organization who promotes within. There should be a reward for the hard work these guys have put in over the years to help set up the future. Obviously you can’t promote from within unless you have capable individuals who are truly worthy of consideration. In this case you definitely do.
The Blues will miss Kekalainen because of his unique way of evaluating talent. He’s a real smart hockey man who’s confident enough to trust his own instincts and can block out negative chatter. I’ll never forget talking to Jarmo at the NHL draft in 2005 when he was getting grilled for drafting a kid named T.J. Oshie way higher than he was projected. He responded to the criticism by saying “come see me in five years.” He’s not afraid to admit when he makes a mistake either which is why he’s always earned my respect. One of the best parts of covering the NHL is getting to know quality hockey people like Jarmo Kekalainen. NHL Executives are no different than players and coach’s as they come and go all the time, it’s a fact of life in professional sports. For the most part Kekalainen has always done what’s right for his career when he’s been forced to make personal decisions. I want to personally wish this guy the best of luck as he continues his solid career in professional hockey.
I’m hearing from credible sources that former Tampa Bay co-owner Oren Koules is eyeing a return to the NHL. I have a feeling this go around he’ll make sure he surrounds himself with individuals that give him a better chance to succeed. With so many teams for sale Koules has plenty to choose from.
Chicago will be incredibly interesting to watch this summer as they have some serious work to do to get under the cap heading into next season. Prior to the playoffs Dustin Byfuglien was a player to watch as a guy to likely be moved in the summer. That obviously isn’t going to happen now. Same goes with Dave Bolland who has had a terrific playoff run. Chicago may be forced to move a Kris Versteeg or a Patrick Sharp. Troy Brouwer could also be moved but his salary comes in a just over $1 million. With the contracts of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith about to see a serious hike this team has some work to do. They can’t trade Brian Campbell who is overpaid, but certainly have the option to send goaltender Cristobal Huet and his $5.625 contract to the minors where he won’t count against the cap. And oh by the way emerging star Antti Niemi has arbitration rights.
Why does Russia have an Olympic roster at the World Championships? Maybe it’s because they pay in the range of $3 million premiums to insure the contracts of players like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyk, and Llya Kovalchuk. Believe me these guys wouldn’t be playing unless this was the case.
I don’t see USA hockey doing this for the best American players.
Top Ten St. Louis Draft Picks under Jarmo Keklainen…..
10. Jake Allen 2nd round 2008 (recently named Top Goaltender in CHL, obviously jury is still out)
9. Ian Cole 1st round 2007 (Has a chance to be a quality player…time will tell)
8. Lars Eller 1st round 2007 (Has a chance to be special)
7. Patrik Berglund 1st round 2007 ( scored 20 in his rookie season)
6.Erik Johnson 1st round 2006 (If we were ranking these players based on talent he’d be at the top, but I could have selected EJ 1st overall as this decision was a slam dunk)
5.David Backes 2nd round 2003 (getting this guy in the second round was an absolute steal)
4. Roman Polak 6th round 2004 (Reliable top 4 D-man found in the 6th round..enough said)
3.David Perron 1st round 2007 (NHL teams across the board are kicking themselves for not taking a shot with this kid)
2. Lee Stempniak 5th round 2003 ( unbelievable find in the 5th round as he developed into a quality NHL goal scorer)
1.T.J. Oshie 1st round 2005 (Not many teams had this guy rated as a first round player. Blues scouts trusted their instincts and gave the Blues one of the top young players in the NHL in the process)
Blues fans should officially have Calgary Hitmen forward Ian Schultz on their radar after watching him play in the Memorial cup.
Keith Tkachuk is moving around much better after have a serious size of bone removed from his hip to rebuild the upper bridge in his mouth. This came as a result of losing several teeth during the season.
Speaking of Tkachuk, he plans on taking the year off before approaching Doug Armstrong about getting involved with the Blues organization.
Look for the Erik Johnson roll at Tani Sushi Bistro in Clayton.
More to come,