The 2021-22 season marked the beginning of a change of era for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Two-way players and franchise cornerstones were shipped out for skill players. They brought in players with high ceilings to fill holes left by reliable established players, and future franchise cornerstones were locked down long term.
But maybe the biggest change came in the form a new role for someone whose skates haven’t touched the ice in a professional hockey game in over a decade. Long-time Jackets assistant coach Brad Larsen got the promotion to replace his mentor John Tortorella.
Before his seven years as an assistant coach, Larsen spent two years as the bench boss for the Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Springfield. Coming in with such a long time between head coaching gigs, it was kind of a mystery to those outside the organization how he would handle the lead role. We’ve since seen one year of Larsen’s reign as head coach. After all the ups and downs, it’s pretty safe to say this campaign was a step forward for the organization.
Larsen has Opened Things Up for the Blue Jackets
Okay, yes, the Jackets were coming off of one of their worst seasons as a franchise — which is saying something for an organization that had some pretty lean times in its early years. Regardless, the team’s .429 points percentage through the 2020-21 season was the fifth worst season in their 21 year existence. They finished 28th in a league of 31 teams. The bar for Larsen was as low as it had been in years. The main question heading into this season was, would the sins of the father – in this case, Tortorella – be passed on to the son – Larsen.
“You weren’t going to get away with anything under Tortorella, so there would be constant corrections that would show up on tape,” said The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline on an episode of our Union Junction podcast.
That pressure wore heavier on the Blue Jackets’ younger and more skill players who were benched or chastized when they made a defensive error or pushed too hard offensively. Exhibit A is the benching of star Patrik Laine, who performed at a career-worst level under Tortorella. Then entered Brad Larsen.
“[Larsen] knows that there are some guys who are just waiting to be let out of their cages, so to speak. ‘Let us play some offensive hockey,'” said Bally Sports rinkside reporter Dave Maetzold in a preseason interview on Union Junction. “I think we’ll see a little bit more of that out of a Brad Larsen coached team.”
Larsen’s more laissez-faire approach had an immediate effect on the Blue Jackets’ core. His victorious 8-2 debut against the Arizona Coyotes made him the first Jackets’ head coach to win his first game since Gerard Gallant in 2004. The team went on to its strongest start in franchise history, winning 12 of their first 18 games. However, as young teams often do, the Jackets went cold as fast as they had heated up. They had a streaky rest of the season, finishing in sixth in the division with 81 points (a .494 points percentage).
“I think if they didn’t have that great start, and you just sort of woke up from a deep sleep and saw them at .500, you’d say, ‘Hm, pretty good. Nice going.'” said Portzline in our midseason chat. “I think Brad Larsen has done a fine job under the circumstances.”
Larsen Quietly has a Huge Personality
Larsen is one of the more relaxed coaches in the league. He’s not an easy one to get fired up in either direction.
“Brad Larsen never gets to high, never gets too low,” says Maetzold. “If you’re to go back and review all of the interviews that I did with him over the course of my time with him doing in-game interviews, you would never really know if the team was up 6-2 or down 7-1. I think that even keel is really going to help this young team.”
Regardless of the state of the team, he’s held a generally optimistic demeanor and clearly trusts the process of building in the long term. That attitude endeared him to the fanbase in short order.
Besides his optimism, he also quietly brings a big personality. His handlebar mustache during Movember was the talk of the town. He also hasn’t been afraid to show emotion, tearing up on multiple occasions in press conferences. While he may not be the loudest person in any given room, his passion for the game and his players is shown in different ways.
The former winger’s playing career was spent as an in-betweener spending equal time in the NHL and AHL over a decade in the pros. His time was littered with leadership experience. Captaining Team Canada to a gold meal in the 1997 World Junior championship as a 19-year-old, serving as captain of the AHL’s Hershey Bears for three seasons, and playing a glue-guy role with the dominant Colorado Avalanche teams of the early 2000s are all on his résumé.
“The rumour is that guys respect that he was a former player and a tough one,” says Portzline.
Tough in more ways than one. Larsen has fought and won two battles with cancer, which he has taken the time to talk about extensively. Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has said on several occasions that when he is making personnel decisions, what’s at the top of mind is if they are of strong character. Larsen fits the Kekalainen mold in that regard.
What Are People Saying About Larsen
Larsen has gotten ringing endorsements from stakeholders in all aspects surrounding the team. From management, through the media, and even the fans. In his exit interview, Kekalainen says he was happy with how Larsen handled the pressure in his rookie season.
“I think Lars has done an excellent job. We never had any doubts about his work ethic and the passion for the game, and those were big reasons why we hired him. There’s no doubt that that was going to be just like we projected. But it’s a different job obviously having all the responsibility and pressure, if you want to call it, on your shoulders. think he’s handled it very well. He’s been in the business for a long time. I said it last year that ever since I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve always felt like he’s a head coach in the National Hockey League. I think he proved in the first year that he’s gonna be a good one.”Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen on Larsen’s first season as head coach.
When asked if Larsen was right to steer the ship in the long term, Portzline says:
“He may just be right for this job. They need a teacher […] I’m not sure there are guys that have the fear factor with him that they did with Tortorella. I think maybe there’s more work for the captains here than there was under Tortorella because Tortorella would not let anything pass. […] I think that there are guys that are getting used to how Larsen wants to coach. […] It’s a growth experience for all of them.”
Maetzold broke down why the Blue Jackets chose Larsen over any of the other coaches who were available last offseason:
“There were a lot of coaches who were available last year. A lot of people that they thought might come in and be the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets […I think the fact that he’s got familiarity with a lot of these young players is really going to help this team […] He’s learned how to be an NHL coach under Torts, he has a great reverence for Torts, and I think that he will show both what he’s learned there and also his own coaching personality as this season unfolds.”
Patrik Laine superfan Saila Sotavalta, who has seen pretty much every game that Laine has played since his days in Finland, says in an interview on Union Junction that under the Larsen regime, Laine has received an opportunity to succeed like never before.
“This season is different. Larsen is giving Laine some time to work things out and gain some chemistry. Even though he sometimes changes some things, still you can see that the whole team enjoys each other,” says Sotavalta.
What’s Next for Larsen and the Jackets?
Larsen had one of the most impactful seasons of any coach in the NHL this year. Although he didn’t garner any votes for the Jack Adams Award, he still had a strong showing. He made an impact on the Blue Jackets’ core while endearing himself to the fanbase in the process.
He unlocked a lot of the offensive talent that had been hiding within the roster. He boosted the Jackets to an offensive best in franchise history, scoring a record 258 goals. However, on the flip side of that coin, they also performed at a defensive worst, allowing a record 297 goals against. The team’s offense that had been caged broke through the bars, sometimes at the expense of defensive responsibility. Getting their goals against under control is the next big step for Larsen and Co. moving forward.
Barring any massive misstep, he seems on track to safely breeze through at least the remaining two years of his contract, if not longer. This year was a massive step forwards for the organization, but next year will be telling to the longer-term trajectory of the organization’s championship aspirations.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.