Blue Jackets plan to build from within, not through free agency, GM says

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The Columbus Blue Jackets plan to improve next season by developing players from within their organization and not through flashy free agent signings.

“I don’t believe in the [free agent] signings to be the answer or recipe for success,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Friday. “We’ve done a good job building through drafting and having some depth. 

“That was tested this year obviously with the injuries, but a lot of the guys that got that opportunity lived up to the expectations or exceeded it.”

Center Pierre-Luc Dubois, selected No. 3 by the Blue Jackets in the 2016 NHL Draft, can become a restricted free agent after this season when his entry-level contract expires.

“He has a chance to be one of the top players in the League if he just keeps going about his business the proper way,” coach John Tortorella said of the 22-year-old.

Dubois was one of several young players to gain valuable experience in the postseason, which ended for the Blue Jackets on Wednesday when they lost 5-4 in overtime to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the East hub city.

“It just gives you a glimpse of what is the future for the hockey club,” Tortorella said. “We’re real excited about continuing to go on the travel with them as far as developing them and just keep on pushing through.”

Video: Lightning, Blue Jackets shake hands

Dubois led the Blue Jackets with four goals and 10 points in 10 postseason games, including an overtime goal in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Toronto Maple Leafs that gave him a hat trick, the first in Columbus postseason history.

He also led the Blue Jackets with 49 points (18 goals, 31 assists) in 70 games during the regular season.

Forwards Alexandre Texier and Liam Foudy, each 20 years old, played in all 10 postseason games. Texier had four assists in the postseason after missing the final 30 games of the regular season with a back injury. Foudy, a first-round pick (No. 18) of the Blue Jackets in the 2018 NHL Draft, had two points (one goal, one assist) in the postseason after playing two regular-season games with Columbus.

Emil Bemstrom, 21, had no points in five postseason games, and Kevin Stenlund, 23, scored one goal in two games against the Lightning.

“We have some really good young players that have taken a big step into the right direction and they’ll take another one or two in the near future with Liam Foudy, Alex Texier and Bemstrom, those guys.” Kekalainen said.

Foudy, who scored 68 points (20 goals, 48 assists) in 45 games with London of the Ontario Hockey League this season, started the postseason strong but grew tired as it progressed, especially after playing 42:27 in the Game 1 loss to the Lightning, which was decided in the fifth overtime.

“We played so much hockey I thought he ran out of gas and started struggling,” Tortorella said. “The last game [against the Lightning], he gave us some really good shifts there.”

In addition to the young forwards, the Blue Jackets have Seth Jones, 25, and Zach Werenski, 23, anchoring their defenseman group.

“I’ll put [them] up against any pairing in the League,” Kekalainen said.

He and Tortorella said veteran forwards such as Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner and Cam Atkinson need to take their games to another level.

“It wasn’t through lack of effort, it wasn’t a lack of try,” Tortorella said. “I think sometimes they’re trying too hard.”

As for center Alexander Wennberg, who scored five points (three goals, two assists) in the postseason, the Blue Jackets are still trying to figure out what they have in the 25-year-old. After being benched late in games against Toronto, he had a goal and an assist in Game 5 against Tampa Bay.

“It’s encouraging but you want to see it every night,” Kekalainen said. “That’s what the expectations are for all the pros.”

One player who likely won’t be a part of the Blue Jackets from here is Brandon Dubinsky. Kekalainen said the center, who missed the season because of wrist surgery, probably will not play again because of the chronic injury.

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