COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a way, Sunday's NHL Draft marks the start of a new era for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Now that the 2012-13 season is officially over, the Blue Jackets are headed for the Eastern Conference. And after a strong second half of last season that saw the club finishing just short of the playoffs, this weekend marks the first draft for the new leadership team of president John Davidson and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.
They're picking much later (No. 14 overall) in the first round than the Jackets have in recent years, but they enter the draft in a position of power -- and with plenty of options. The Jackets hold picks 14, 19 and 27 in the first round and the No. 44 overall pick just short of midway through the second.
In theory, anyway, having three first-round picks and four in the first 44 gives the Blue Jackets ammo to package multiple picks to either move up in the draft -- or trade one or more picks for an established veteran player.
"The talks are heating up this week," Kekalainen said Tuesday morning at the team's official pre-draft press conference. "It would have to be a very good deal for our organization to give up one of those first-round picks, but we'll see. It would have to be for a player that makes a lot of sense for us now and into the future."
The Jackets' top offseason priority is re-signing goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, whose emergence last season fueled the playoff run. Beyond that, Kekalainen said that it's certainly adding scoring punch.
But the question looming over the Jackets' moves this weekend and in the coming weeks is just how far they are from truly contending. And in a draft full of 18 and 19-year old prospects, Kekalainen said, "you really have to let players develop at the pace that's best for them. I don't think you go into a draft and talk a lot about your needs right now.
"A lot of these players need years before they're ready to play in the NHL."
Kekalainen said he feels "excitement" but not pressure heading into the weekend, saying "it's an exciting time for our franchise...a chance to make a big difference."
His thinking seems to be that the draft can go in a variety of ways, and though the Jackets would like to be aggressive they're keeping an open mind.
"It's not easy to move up (in the draft), I can tell you that," Kekalainen said. "We're not going to rule (anything) out. We will try our best in every scenario. We've made our evaluations of what each pick will be worth and we'll see what happens."
The NHL salary cap will be reduced starting in the 2013-14 season. Initially, anyway, that will affect more established clubs with older rosters than it will the Jackets, and it could lead to the Jackets being able to turn some of their draft resources into ready-made help.
"We've had those conversations," Kekalainen said. "We'll look very long and hard at doing that with our first-round picks, if it's something that makes sense for us both in the short term and in the long term. We'll continue to look at it, but there's nothing conclusive yet.
"We have three first-round picks to do everything we can to make this team better."