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Blue Jackets fire GM Jarmo Kekalainen midway through his 11th full season

The Columbus Blue Jackets fired general manager Jarmo Kekalainen on Thursday, ending his time on the job ahead of another crucial trade deadline for the struggling club.

President of hockey operations John Davidson made the call midway through Kekalainen’s 11th full season on the job and with just over three weeks to go before the March 8 deadline. The 57-year-old Kekalainen, who is from Finland, was the third-longest tenured GM in the NHL.

“This is one of the hardest days I have had in my career as Jarmo is a friend, someone I have a great deal of respect for and someone who has done a lot of good things during his time here,” Davidson said in a statement. “While the future of our club is bright, our performance has not been good enough, and it is time for a fresh perspective as we move forward.”

Davidson and the hockey operations team will assume GM duties on an interim basis until a full-time replacement is hired. Davidson said at a news conference in Columbus the focus will be primarily on external candidates and predicted an exhaustive search.

Firing Kekalainen now comes with the Blue Jackets in last place in the Eastern Conference and on track to miss the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. They could be sellers at the deadline, with center Jack Roslovic set to be an unrestricted free agent and a few others potential trade candidates.

Davidson and assistant GMs Josh Flynn and Basil McRae will be making those decisions, not Kekalainen.

“We have a lot ahead of us,” said Davidson, who mentioned his own absence because of back surgery when asked about why this happened now. “We’ve had an up-and-down, at times turbulent, season. I just think that going forward, now was the time to turn that page and go forward with all the decisions that we have to make that are ahead of us.”

It has also been several months since the botched hiring of coach Mike Babcock, who was forced to resign on the eve of training camp for his conduct with players.

Ownership, after Kekalainen and Davidson named Pascal Vincent coach following the Babcock fiasco, said in September there would not be any front office changes at that time. But the heat was clearly on given the lack of success since the franchise’s last playoff appearance in 2020.

Team president Mike Priest, also at the news conference with Davidson, defended the owners’ involvement in the process and the timing of this move.

“You could pick a number of different reasons: You don’t want to put him in a bad position for trade deadline where he can’t do his job,” Priest said. “Those are issues that you can come to. You can debate whether it’s a good time of year or not, but when decisions are made and respect to the people, then we’re going to make that decision and we’re going to be honest about it.”

Only St. Louis’ Doug Armstrong, hired by the Blues in 2010, and Winnipeg’s Kevin Cheveldayoff in 2011, had been in a GM post in the league longer than Kekalainen, who replaced Scott Howson midseason nearly 11 years ago to the date in 2013.

Kekalainen inherited Todd Richards as coach, and Columbus reached the playoffs in his first full season in 2013-14. He fired Richards seven games and seven losses into 2015-16 and replaced him with Stanley Cup-winning coach John Tortorella, who guided the Blue Jackets to four consecutive postseason appearances — the organization’s longest sustained stretch of success since its inception at the turn of the century.

Tortorella and the team parted ways in 2021, and Kekalainen hired Brad Larsen, then fired him two lackluster seasons later. Hiring Babcock, whose old-school coaching tactics had drawn sharp criticism from current and former players, last summer was a major risk for Kekalainen and Davidson but one they thought would be worth it given his winning track record.

Instead, word emerged that Babcock had asked to see personal photos on players’ phones. The NHLPA launched an investigation, Babcock resigned and Vincent — an assistant under Larsen who had also been under consideration for the gig originally — was elevated to take his place.

The results under Vincent have been underwhelming. The Blue Jackets have won just 16 of their first 52 games, star players such as Johnny Gaudreau have been benched late in games and more significant changes beyond the firing of Kekalainen could be coming when the regular season is over in April.

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