The Columbus Blue Jackets have hired Brad Larsen as the eighth coach in franchise history. On Friday morning, he was introduced for the first time as head coach. He along with President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen spoke to the media about the hiring and what could be next.
It’s fair to say that there were several questions on the minds of fans when Larsen’s hiring was announced. In fact many took to social media to voice their displeasure with most looking at the performance of the power play as a possible sign of things to come.
But just about 24 hours later, the mood seems to have lightened a little bit. Larsen came in and did a great job with his first media availability. He was well spoken. He is also very excited for the opportunity that’s in front of him. But there are still questions that need to be answered.
Three of the biggest questions on the minds of many are:
- Why is Larsen the best man for the job?
- What does Larsen’s hiring mean for the future of the team?
- What’s coming next for the team?
All three of these were addressed in some form during the availability. Let’s look at these one at a time.
Why Larsen? Why Now?
The Blue Jackets were said to have been in on several candidates. Kekalainen and Davidson both said that it was an exhaustive process that involved many candidates. But in the end, no candidate was able to exceed what Kekalainen called “The Lars Bar.”
Larsen has been with the Blue Jackets organization since he was a head coach with Springfield. In his two seasons there, the Falcons won a division title. So there was on-ice success at the AHL level.
Larsen has been an assistant coach both under Todd Richards and John Tortorella spanning over seven seasons. If there was one thing that the management team has stresses during this coaching search, it’s been “setting the standard.” In Larsen, the Blue Jackets believe they have the right man for the job at the right time.
“This is an exciting day,” Kekalainen said. “We went through a very thorough and exhaustive search and interviewed all of the available top candidates in our opinion and some of them twice. And actually we interviewed the guy we know the best (Larsen) three times. We’ve known him through the years. And we have this term. He was one of the first interviews we had and we used this term ‘The Lars Bar.’ And nobody seemed to get over ‘The Lars Bar.'”
“The more and more we thought about it, the more we know about the man and his passion for the game, his work ethic, his attention to detail, his communication skills and we felt he was the best choice for us and it was a clear consensus within our management group.”
Kekalainen did go on to say that they got some input from some of the leadership on the team. A couple of those players were in attendance at the press conference including Cam Atkinson, Gus Nyquist, Patrik Laine, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
It’s clear from the team’s perspective why they chose Larsen. They look at his success as a head coach in the AHL, his knowledge of the team and current players and the kind of character he brings to the table. He fits what the team was looking for especially given where they are at as a whole. He has the respect of management and players. At this point in the process, that’s a huge thing to have. He checked off all the boxes the team was looking for in its next head coach. They hope he can help reestablish the standard that is Blue Jackets’ hockey.
What Does His Hiring Mean For the Immediate Future?
The Blue Jackets decided to pass on more experienced NHL head coaches such as Gerard Gallant and Rick Tocchet. That is an interesting decision and it suggests a couple of things in play.
First, the Blue Jackets are going to be a young team in 2021-22. Whoever the Blue Jackets were going to hire had to be a good teacher on top of everything else the team was looking for. Larsen’s AHL experience and experience with current players on the roster made this a match. Atkinson and Jenner were each on the Falcons’ team coached by Larsen.
Second, did Gallant and Tocchet want to go into a situation where a team might be a few years away? Management said nobody passed the Lars bar. But it was interesting to note that Kekalainen said that they hope to compete for the playoffs. He never used the word rebuild. So there is a belief within the room that Larsen can get the job done as soon as this season.
That admission by Kekalainen probably caught some off guard. Given the Seth Jones news, we assume that the team should explore a full rebuild. But it appears Kekalainen is sticking to his guns that it’s more of a reload. He also said that it should be “an exciting summer.”
Larsen’s hire does not mean the Blue Jackets are in a full rebuild. But they are in a place where they have some pieces but have to make some hard decisions. Larsen’s character and demeanor seem ready to handle these challenges. Having a steady hand in place when things start happening was of utmost importance to the Blue Jackets.
The immediate future seems to point at a transition of sorts but not a full-blown rebuild. What will the team look like after all the dust settles? It’ll likely look a lot different than today. But at least at Nationwide Arena, there is still a belief they can compete with a chance of making the playoffs. That would imply some potentially huge moves are forthcoming. We’ll see.
Kekalainen at his end of season presser said that the most important thing was to hire a new coach. Mission accomplished. So now what does management turn their attention to as the next most important thing? We asked that exact question. Kekalainen had an interesting response.
“We’re well into our training now, that’s really important for the group that we have here,” Kekalainen said. “I’m not so sure that we were as well prepared as we’ve normally been. I think the standard’s always been real high and the way the fall went and waiting for the season to start. We’ve been a hard team to play against, grinding, great shape, prepared 100%. I’m not so sure that we were there for many different reasons.”
“I think this offseason needs to be great for all of our players. But as a management staff, we’re going to have a busy summer. We got draft meetings coming up soon. We got three first-round picks coming up and nine picks altogether that we can do a lot of different things with. I’ve already talked to several of the general managers in the league that have (Seattle) protection problems in the expansion draft. They’re eyeing those picks like (laughs)…they’re very hungry for our first-round picks I can tell you that.”
From a player’s standpoint, training is underway to be ready for the fall. From management’s standpoint, it’s draft season. They’ve already started having some conversations about their lists and about how to handle the many different options the team could explore.
Of note, Larsen said that he will reach out to Seth Jones. Whether that changes anything remains to be seen. But that item should be at or near the top of the list for management. A return on any Jones trade could set the Blue Jackets up well down the road.
Overall, Larsen did well with his initial presser. Seeing the players in the room in support was an important moment. But now the real work begins for everyone. Phones will start ringing more. Trade and draft chatter will only pick up.
But for these Blue Jackets, hiring Larsen was an important step. It helped answer an important question of who was going to steer this team through some rough terrain coming up. It also points to what 2021-22 and beyond might look like.
At the end of the day, the Blue Jackets got the right man for the job in their view. They’re confident that eventually, this team will be back to being an annual playoff participant. Larsen has the respect of everyone in the room. As he said himself when asked about a fresh voice: “I think I am that voice.” He worked his way up and has earned this opportunity.
The time for talk is over. The time for hard work is here. With Larsen on board, the Blue Jackets can now shift their focus on perhaps their most important offseason in franchise history given what all could happen.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.