Jarmo Kekäläinen leading NHL club Columbus Blue Jackets has been bubbling over the past week.
The head coach Mike Babcock had to leave his position on Sunday, when information about Babcock’s behavior, considered inappropriate, began to spread in the American media. According to American media, Babcock had violated the players’ privacy. He had examined the pictures on the players’ phones.
Several American media have questioned Kekäläinen’s status and future as club boss in recent days, as Kekäläinen was responsible for Babcock’s hiring.
Columbus’s ownership group released a statement on Monday expressing their frustration with the events of the past week. They still stated that they “don’t expect any changes” to the club’s management team. According to the owners, the changes would cause further disruptions to the team’s preparation for the upcoming season.
The first European head coach in the NHL Alpo Suhonen in ‘s interview sees the situation just the other way around. According to him, a statement like Columbus’s owners often means that in this case the club management is gone.
– Now we are probably waiting for a suitable time in Columbus, because the entire management can be changed. This is my prediction. It can go until spring, but it depends a little on how Columbus is playing now. Management can change quickly, Suhonen, 75, says.
Kekäläinen’s current contract as Columbus’ GM is valid until the end of the 2024–2025 season.
Babcock has already been reported to have treated players inappropriately in Toronto and Detroit.
The latest scandal began to unfold in an interesting way when Columbus first issued a statement denying Babcock’s inappropriate behavior on Tuesday.
However, the NHL players association started a more detailed investigation and visited Columbus on Thursday. On Sunday, the Blue Jackets announced Babcock’s departure. After that, the NHL players’ association also published its own statement.
– Our players must be treated with respect in the workplace. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Columbus. The club’s decision to move forward with a new head coach is an appropriate course of action, the president of the NHL players association Marty Walsh comment.
Suhonen questions Kekäläinen’s leadership
According to Alpo Suhonen, we still don’t even know everything that has happened in Columbus in the last few weeks.
– It is not essential that such (Babcock’s) behavior has happened again. What matters is that Babcock’s reputation in Detroit and Toronto has already been bad. Why do we want to hire Babcock again when we know his reputation and habits? That will be a big question mark for Kekäläinen’s leadership, says Suhonen.
Suhonen suspects that Kekäläinen, who has worked in the NHL for twenty years, is part of the league’s inner circle. He has already talked about the closed culture in the NHL in connection with previous coaching scandals.
– I think that Babcock’s return as a coach was such an attempt by the insiders, the NHL “mafia”, to return Babcock to work. The attitude of the players towards coaching methods has changed and the power of the players has increased. The power of the media has also increased, so this kind of thing won’t work, says Suhonen.
Even in light of the statistics, an exceptionally long time as GM
Kekäläinen has been the general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets for over ten years. In that span, Columbus has only won a playoff series once. The 57-year-old Kekäläinen is the third longest-serving general manager of NHL clubs at the moment. Of the six longest-running ones, Kekäläinen’s merites are the weakest.
According to statistics, general managers of NHL clubs are able to change coaches twice on average before they themselves get sidelined. On average, the tenures of general managers of NHL clubs last five years at a time. Kekäläinen has been in the position for ten and a half years now. He has changed coaches four times.
Why has Kekäläinen been able to be GM for an exceptionally long time, even based on the statistics, even though he hasn’t had a top result?
– This must have been held up by Mr. Davidson. He is Kekäläinen’s old friend, Suhonen says, referring to Columbus’ current director of hockey operations to John Davidson.
Davidson already worked together with Kekäläinen in the St. Louis Blues in the first decade of the 2000s.
– In the NHL, there is a very closed and small circle. Breaking it is difficult, says Suhonen.
However, Suhonen credits Kekäläinen with scouting and booking players.
– He has not been successful in the GM job, Suhonen says.
According to Suhonen, Kekäläinen has failed in all his coach selections.
– He has chosen traditional NHL coaches from a very old association. He has no innovative touch. There has been no success. Many of the star players he acquired have wanted to leave Columbus, says Suhonen.
Ismo Lehkonen: “Certainly there are takers for Kekäläinen”
Urheilu’s ice hockey expert Ismo Lehkonen is not as sharp in his words as Alpo Suhonen.
– It must be remembered that Babcock was a so-called all-in hire. It must have been thought about very carefully. The pros and cons have been weighed. Babcock has certainly been through the bad sides. The conclusion has probably been reached that he was the best man for that situation, says Lehkonen.
Columbus has missed the playoffs in the last couple of seasons. Lehkonen sees that Babcock was hired to turn Columbus’ direction back up. Now the timing for the commotion was the worst possible, according to the expert, because the NHL clubs’ training camps are about to start.
– The club management and the coaching team have certainly already put the new steps in place in the summer. How are new players brought up, what kind of trades are made and what kind of free agents are tried to tickle the team? Now everything starts from scratch again, says Lehkonen.
Lehkonen sees that Kekäläinen is now in a difficult place.
– I like Kekäläi as a top professional. It is not easy for any GM to work in the NHL. It is extremely difficult to build a team all over again. Last year, their center division was really thin. The number one defender Zach Werenski was injured. Patrick Laine was injured. The fermentation space has been really hard. There have been many things that Kekäläinen has not been able to influence, says Lehkonen.
Lehkonen’s assessment of Kekäläinen’s future is positive in any case.
– There will probably be takers for Kekäläinen if things go badly in Columbus, Lehkonen sums up the situation.