by PuckStopsHere on 02/14/13 at 01:57 AM ET
After yesterday's firing of GM Scott Howson, the Columbus Blue Jackets have announced that Jarmo Kekalainen will be their next general manager. Kekalainen is the first European general manager in NHL history. In principle that sounds like a good idea. There are some great hockey minds in Europe and I am sure some of them would make good general managers. The question is whether or not Kekalainen is one.
Kekalainen had a short NHL career consisting of 55 games played with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. He retired to become a scout. He scouted for Ottawa for seven years and the St Louis Blues for three. He spent five years as assistant GM in St Louis. When it seemed that he had hit the glass ceiling as an NHL executive from Europe he returned to his native Finland and became the general manager of Jokerit in the Finnish Elite League. This is the first overall team in the league. They have climbed in the standings during his time in Finland. It's hard to make short term judgments on a GM in a league in which I am not too familiar, but it looks like Kekalainen is a good GM from his Finnish experience.
In the NHL Kekalainen has been a successful part of many drafts. Among the players drafted in drafts Kekalainen has been involved are Jason Spezza, Bryan Berard, Marian Hossa, Alex Pietrangelo and David Backes. Drafting is never done by only one person and it is hard to know how much credit any one person should be given for a particular team's selection. Many of these top players were selected with very early picks in drafts where a successful player should be selected. Commenter Larry is not sold on Kekalainen. He writes:
He’s got a reputation as a Haakan Anderson-esque draft wiz, but, near as I can tell, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.
The one year St Louis loaded up on picks, Kekalainen’s signature year, he picked the blatantly wrong guy 1st overall, then made a number of off the board picks that didn’t amount to much at all (Eller’s a depth player selected way too high who was traded…Cole’s a big fat nothing), leaving more conventional selections (notably Max Pacioretty) on the board. If not for David Perron, the entire draft would have been a disaster and Perron’s not exactly a franchise player. Perhaps not even an eventual all-star.
He does not mention the Ottawa years at all, but this shows the problem with evaluating people through the draft. There will always be uncertainty in any pick. There will be failed picks. Anybody who is a "draft wizard" will go off the board sometimes and fail with those picks sometimes and succeed other times. Their success has to be shown to be better than random chance and that is hard to do.
It is reasonable to be skeptical about somebody who has their draft record as their main qualification. It is hard to know exactly how much any particular person is involved in a particular draft pick and it is hard to separate a good pick from good luck.
Kekalainen is not somebody who has been on everyone's radar as a future NHL general manager. His contributions have largely been behind the scenes and as a result are hard to quantify. Simply put Jarmo Kekalainen is a wildcard. It is hard to put forth any quantifiable evidence to show that he will be a good GM aside from John Davidson's vouching for him. While Davidson knows his hockey, he may also be wrong.
It will be interesting to see how Jarmo Kekalainen does as an NHL general manager. If he succeeds, he will likely become the first of many European GMs. If he fails, it will likely be a while before another European becomes an NHL GM. His past success largely comes from hard to quantify draft records. That makes it uncertain how qualified he is to be an NHL GM. However in a league where GM's are hired as former backup goalies (Garth Snow on Long Island) or because of their ability to speak French (Marc Bergevin in Montreal), the logic behind his hiring is much better than some NHL GMs.
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