Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blues Director of Amateur Scouting and Assistant General Manager, has been with the Blues since September of 2002 and been the main man behind all of their drafts since 2003. On this, his seventh draft day as a member of the team, it's worthwhile to take a look at the impact the man has had on the organization.
Hey, um, could someone get the Assistant GM a pair of skates that didn't have to be rented? Seriously. Anyone?
When he came aboard in 2002, the Blues were nearing the end of a 25-year playoff appearance streak (the 2004 playoffs were the last appearance until the 2009 playoffs). as such, the team hadn't drafted high in the order for the better part of three decades. On top of that, in a constant mode of chasing the Cup, many of the teams' draft picks, especially first round picks, were traded away for playing assets. Throw in a couple tampering charges and during those 25 years, the Blues only drafted 12 players in the first round.
Those 12, outside of current Blue Barret Jackman and longtime former-Blue Rod Brind'amour, are a collection of fringe NHLers (Marty Reasoner, Steve Staios, Jason Marshall, Jocelyn Lemieux), serviceable if unimpressive players (Rik Wilson, Christian Backman) and full on draft busts (Jeff Taffe, Keith Osborne, Marty Ruff). Clearly, success at the draft table was not a priority for St. Louis in the plan to build the franchise.
The hiring of Kekalainen then, signaled a huge shift in theory on how to build the franchise. Kekalainen's reputation preceded him from Ottawa where he was known as the man who had built the expansion team Senators from league joke to Conference Finals powerhouse. Kekalainen was credited with drafting Ray Emery, Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Anton Volchenkov and for being the scout who unearthed Martin Havlat and Marian Hossa. He was known as a shrewd talent scout and a man who knew how to build a team by building up a prospect pipeline.
Since taking over the Blues' draft table in 2003, the Blues have drafted nine players in the first round in seven seasons, quite the difference from the previous two-plus decades. And while the busting of Jarmo-drafted first rounders Marek Schwarz and Shawn Belle will remain on his record, and his top-end NHL talent picks are more a function of poor regular-season play (and resulting high draft picks in No. 1 overall Erik Johnson and No. 4 overall Alex Pietrangelo) than drafting prowess, it is his late-round and later round selections that will be his legacy as the man who rebuilt the Blues.
Looking first at his late-round first rounders, his resume shows:
- 2005; 24th overall: T.J. Oshie
- 2006; 25th overall: Patrik Berglund
- 2007; 18th overall: Ian Cole
- 2007; 26th overall: David Perron
Three of those players played for the team this year and did so effectively, finishing third (Oshie, .68) and tied for fifth (Berglund and Perron, .62) on the team in points-per-game among players who appeared in at least half of the team's games. Cole, who is still attending Notre Dame, is expected to become a top-4 blueliner for the Blues in the next few years. Lars Eller, taken 13th overall in 2007, wasn't considered here due to his top-half of the slate position.
Beyond those four players, Kekalainen's record in the following three rounds also includes some gems:
- 2003; 62nd overall: David Backes
- 2005; 85th overall: Ben Bishop
- 2006; 64th overall: Jonas Junland
- 2007; 44th overall: Aaron Palushaj
- 2007; 85th overall; Brett Sonne
- 2007; 96th overall: Cade Fairchild
- 2008; 33rd overall: Philip McRae
- 2008; 34th overall: Jake Allen
An impressive group of second-tier talent, to be sure. The group of non-first rounders includes two players who look to one day battle for ownership of the starting netminder job in St. Louis (Bishop and Allen), a 30-goal scorer at the NHL level (Backes), three players who are expected to become second-line quality scoring forwards (Sonne, Palushaj, McRae) and two potentially effective NHL blueliners (Junland and Fairchild).
While first round players are expected to progress and become franchise-type of talents, drafting well in the second through fourth rounds is how a strong franchise foundation is built. Kekalainen has seemingly captured that with this pool of players.
But while the early rounds are more likely to produce NHLers, finding high-upside kids in the later rounds is a quality that can build an executive's reputation. Kekalainen's pool of late-round finds also has its share of success stories:
- 2003: 148th overall (5th rd): Lee "Dutchie" Stempniak
- 2004; 180th overall (6th rd): Roman Polak
- 2005; 219th overall (7th rd): Nikolai Lemtyugov
While Stempniak is at a crossroads in his career up in Toronto following his trade last season, we hope he re-discovers his goalscorer's touch and breaks the 20-goal mark again in the near future. Polak meanwhile has established himself as a legitimate NHL blueliner with his seemingly veteran play this season and in the playoffs. He has the chance to be one of the players most-often mentioned when talking about late round steals in the draft. Lemtyugov left Peoria in a bit of a fit this season and returned to Europe, though he seems prepared to return to North America and attempting to earn his way to the NHL as a scoring forward.
Drafting today in the 17th overall spot, there's no telling who Jarmo will tap to pull on that Bluenote, but whether it's someone who is widely known or if it's a young man who is expected to go much later
There was talk that Kekalainen was hoping to be named to the General-Manager-In-Waiting position that ultimately went to Doug Armstrong last season. When Larry Pleau steps down after this year, it will be Armstrong who takes the reigns of the franchise. However it can be argued that Kekalainen is truly the man who has put this franchise in the position it is in today; owner of the top-rated prospect system and on the verge of becoming an NHL powerhouse.