When can we expect the downfall of Kekalainen in Columbus?

More often than not, even as a journalist, you can scroll past the quotes in a press release without blinking. They are usually bland, boilerplate, scripted by a public relations director, included to add a hockey executive’s voice to a transaction.

Then there are press releases like the one on Sunday from the Columbus Blue Jackets announcing the resignation of coach Mike Babcock, where the quotes stop you dead in your tracks. Babcock didn’t even make it to training camp in his first coaching gig in four years, forced to resign after allegations of improper treatment of players surfaced, yet the statement from Columbus was combative.

Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen somehow thanked Babcock for his “hard work,” which allegedly included inspecting players’ camera rolls on their phones, and “professionalism” in working with the team to step down. No joke. If Babcock had any professionalism, he’d still be employed.

Then, the Blue Jackets allowed Babcock to issue his own quote, as if anyone was going to buy that Babcock was somehow noble enough to fall on his own sword and step away – like it wasn’t abundantly obvious that the NHL Players’ Association was armed with evidence that forced his departure.

Babcock allegedly intimidated and bullied the youngest players in the Blue Jackets’ organization and Kekalainen thanked him for his service. There was no apology, no support for his players, or even a denouncement of Babcock’s alleged actions, a strongly worded statement that they would not be tolerated in Columbus. It was a statement devoid of leadership. If the written word can elicit a smell, the Blue Jackets’ statement on Sunday reeked of defiance, perhaps no surprise given that Kekalainen already raised a middle finger to Johan Franzen and anyone else who was maligned by Babcock’s previously alleged mistreatment of players when he hired him three months ago.

All of which begs the question: With Babcock gone, why isn’t Kekalainen following him out the door?

This was a hire Kekalainen had to ace. The Blue Jackets were coming off a 59-point campaign that was 12 points worse than their inaugural season as an expansion franchise in 2000, despite spending $84 million in free agents last summer on Johnny Gaudreau and Erik Gudbranson.

Kekalainen could have hired any coach on the planet. There was a Stanley Cup champion and serial winner with a squeaky clean resume, a two-time AHL Coach of the Year, and other up-and-comers available. He chose Babcock, chock-full of arrogance, who will go down with the blemished mark of 0-0-0. Kekalainen plunged this all-important bounceback season into chaos before camp even opened, a new low for one of the most anonymous franchises in North American pro sports.

Kekalainen should wear the fact that the Blue Jackets still have that tag. It’s not because they’re located in Columbus, it’s because they have never been a threat to win. Kekalainen was a trailblazing hire by John Davidson back in 2013 as the first European-born general manager in NHL history. Now he’s 57 and the third-longest tenured GM, and the Blue Jackets have won exactly one playoff round in his 10 full seasons on the job.

That isn’t to say Kekalainen hasn’t achieved a measure of success. Columbus has qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs five times over his 10 seasons, which is at least four more appearances than any of his predecessors could claim. There have been more hits than misses in the Draft, including Zach Werenski and Kent Johnson, plus a slew of late-round finds such as Oliver Bjorkstrand, Vladislav Gavrikov and Elvis Merzlikins.

Like with any GM, not every transaction has panned out. Kekalainen knocked both ends of the Seth Jones trade (coming and going) out of the park. He extracted real value for Nick Foligno and David Savard. Some deals have been a wash for both sides, such as Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic for Pierre-Luc Dubois, or Jakub Voracek for Cam Atkinson. He swung and missed on the Max Domi for Josh Anderson deal and wasn’t alone in stubbing his toe during the run up to the Vegas Expansion Draft.

But under Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets have seemed to wallow in the idea that Columbus is not one of the NHL’s preferred destinations for players. He had to gear up and go for it in 2019, give up a haul for Matt Duchene, because Kekalainen knew that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky were unlikely to re-sign there long-term.

That’s a shame. Columbus has a loud and loyal fanbase. They’ve got facilities that are second-to-none in a rapidly growing, inexpensive and safe place to raise a family. The Blue Jackets have all of the makings to be hockey’s underdog darling, the team nobody roots against. They can’t get out of their own way.

There are other NHL outposts that are not sexy. Buffalo, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa come to mind. None of the managers in those markets have given their managers a free pass. Jason Botterill didn’t get any extra points or an extended run with the Sabres because Western New York isn’t attractive in winter. He was gone in three years – and he didn’t hire a coach that didn’t make it to training camp. Keeping Kekalainen for an 11th season and beyond sends a message that mediocrity is acceptable. And it’s only going to get worse. Because if Kekalainen thought recruiting players was difficult before, just wait until they read between the lines of his statement on Sunday.

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