It’s been a week since the scouting combine and the Blue Jackets’ stance on trading the third overall pick in the NHL draft hasn’t budged.
Less than two weeks from the draft June 28-29 in Nashville, the Jackets are planning to use their pick to select an elite center prospect after the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks make their choices.
“I’ve gotten several calls about the third pick, but nothing’s been even close,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told The Dispatch. “So, it’s highly, highly, highly unlikely (to be traded). I’m 99.9% sure that we’re not trading that pick.”
That’s because of how rich this draft is with players projected to be with impactful future NHL forwards, particularly a handful of centers who could anchor a team’s first line for years.
Chicago is expected to take “generational talent” Connor Bedard, many analysts project Anaheim taking Michigan’s Adam Fantilli and the Blue Jackets would then have a choice between highly-rated centers Leo Carlsson (Swedish Hockey League) and Will Smith (United States national program). The wildcard is Matvei Michkov, a dynamic Russian winger who some feel is close to Bedard in skill.
Michkov is under contract in the KHL for three more seasons and doesn’t play center, so it would be a Kekalainen draft surprise if he uses the third pick on him. The Blue Jackets have had only top-five picks in seven drafts and three were centers: Ryan Johansen (2010 fourth overall), Pierre-Luc Dubois (2016 third overall) and Kent Johnson (2021 fifth overall).
Dubois, listed as a left wing during his draft, centered the Blue Jackets’ top line for two-plus seasons before requesting a trade in 2021 that sent him to the Winnipeg Jets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. Johnson, listed as a center during his draft, hopes to play center in the NHL eventually. He played exclusively on the wing in two collegiate seasons at Michigan before spending most of this past season on the wing as an NHL rookie.
Trading the pick would only make sense if what’s offered is so lopsided in the Blue Jackets’ favor that Kekalainen feels obligated to take it. Despite stating that publicly at the combine in Buffalo, it hasn’t stopped analysts and fans from throwing out trade scenarios on social media they think would get it done.
Those have increased since Kekalainen bolstered the Blue Jackets’ blue line with recent trades to add experienced defensemen Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson. Columbus is often the subject of trade speculation despite the Ducks (second pick), San Jose Sharks (fourth pick) and Montreal Canadiens (fifth pick) all being in the top five.
“The only reason people are talking about us, for some reason, is because we made two fairly aggressive trades,” Kekalainen said. “Now they think we’ve got to win now and that we’re desperate and I’m trying to save my job … and whatever the urban legends are right now. I don’t (care) about that talk, to be honest with you. Most of the GMs know me, and they don’t call me because of urban legends that are out there. They call everybody. I’m sure they’re calling the Ducks too. You just don’t know about it.”
Calls about the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick, for now, are going nowhere fast.
“There’s nothing that’s even been close,” Kekalainen said.
Columbus Blue Jackets impressed by Backstrom’s ‘quality of character’
“We know the quality of his work, we know the quality of his character and I put a lot of weight into the quality of character,” Kekalainen said. “Everybody gives you the right answers in interviews. It’s something different to know if they’re going to do it in their everyday work. With Nik, we know for sure because we’ve seen it already for four years now ― how hard he works, how diligent he is, how committed he is … all those things. That’s what kind of decided it.”
Backstrom, 45, has never been an NHL team’s primary goaltending coach. He has spent four years working for the Blue Jackets as a European-based goaltending development coach and scout, which gave him a chance to impress the team’s front office.
Backstrom also played 21 professional seasons that included the NHL, multiple stops in Finland and one season in the Swedish Hockey League. He has a good working relationship with Daniil Tarasov, the Blue Jackets’ top young netminder who worked with Backstrom in Finland for one season, and the Jackets’ new goalie coach is eager to build a connection with Elvis Merzlikins.
The Jackets are banking on a new voice, plus Backstrom’s wealth of playing experience, helping Merzlikins rebound from two poor seasons. It’s a bit of a gamble with such an important coaching role, but Kekalainen isn’t sweating the risk.
“All the interviews we did were about our goalies,” Kekalainen said. “We said, ‘What would you do and how would you work with (Merzlikins)?’ We also had a video. ‘What would you do to change his game? What else?’ Every goalie expert, the answers on the tape were pretty much identical, and we interviewed a lot of guys. So, they all know what he needs to do to get back to his game, when he was great. Now, he’s just got to do the work to get there.”
Could the Blue Jackets corner Ohio market with new ECHL affiliate?
The Blue Jackets first worked with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL as an affiliate from 2014-16, and then returned to the Wings from 2021 to present. News Saturday about the Buffalo Sabres has sparked speculation that a Blue Jackets switch to the Cincinnati Cyclones could be possible.
Sources with direct knowledge of the situation told The Buffalo News that the Sabres have mutually agreed to not extend their ECHL affiliate agreement with Cincinnati.
Buffalo is in talks with another ECHL club and a deal is expected to be complete soon.https://t.co/6aZJvl9Ie2
— Lance Lysowski (@LLysowski) June 15, 2023
The Buffalo News reported the Sabres are seeking a new ECHL affiliate, which would free up the Cyclones for the Blue Jackets, whose affiliate in the American Hockey League is the Cleveland Monsters. Adding Cincinnati as their ECHL affiliate would give the Blue Jackets a presence in Ohio’s three largest cities and canvass the state from top to bottom.
The Blue Jackets, who haven’t announced anything about an affiliate change, extended their agreement with Kalamazoo last summer to cover this past season. They appear to be free of obligations. Stay tuned.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Trade offers for Columbus Blue Jackets’ third pick ‘not close’
Source: Yahoo Sports