Blue Jackets’ Exit Interviews Show Offseason Uncertainty

Will Seth Jones sign a new contract when he’s eligible to on July 1? Who will the next coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets be? Can the team acquire a number-one center? Those are just some of the questions facing them as this offseason begins.

Based on what was said during the exit interviews on Monday, it reinforced the idea of the uncertainty surrounding the Blue Jackets.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen and several players spoke to the media on Zoom about this past season and what might be coming in the offseason. We know what the issues are. But how it all plays out is anyone’s guess.

Will Jones Sign a Long-Term Extension?

As we’ve talked about before, signing Jones is priority 1-5 for the Blue Jackets. Where they go as a franchise will be dictated by this decision. If he signs, then it’s not a rebuild. If not, then all bets are off.

Jones was asked about the offseason and if he’d be willing to sign.

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“There’s a lot of uncertainties of course whether it’s UFA’s, RFA’s, goaltending, coaching, really all of the above,” Jones said. “I’m sure the leadership group will talk. You guys (the media) know we’re going to have a chat with Jarmo (Kekalainen) later today and talk about some things and try to figure some things out for the future.”

“I’m just unwinding from the season I think. As you guys know, I’m still here for another year as of now. I can’t sign an extension until July 1 anyway. But of course you have talks, my agent and the GM and myself have talks well before that. So we’ll see where that goes…I think it’s a situation that you only get once in your lifetime. Yeah there’s a lot of pressure and people are looking at you from all over. But I have to really take a step back and think about what I want. It very well could be here. But I’m just unwinding right now. I’ll obviously be in touch with Jarmo very soon of course.”

Circle the date on your calendar. July 1. That is the first eligible date Jones can sign a new deal. Until there is clarity here, most everything else will be murky at best in terms of how the team addresses other things.

Tortorella Out, Who’s Next?

Kekalainen spoke for almost 30 minutes on Monday on a wide range of topics including the coaching search and what he might be looking for. Does the new coach need to be in the mold of Tortorella? Does experience matter? Kekalainen addressed that and more.

Columbus Blue Jackets Jarmo Kekalainen
Jarmo Kekalainen will take his time before naming a new coach to replace John Tortorella. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Gary Wiepert)

“It’s going to be very important to find the right coach,” Kekalainen said. “But as far as the players and how we select and draft and the trades, it’s something I always work together with the coach when the time comes and when he’s here. But we’re going to go about our business like we always do.”

“Similar qualities that (Tortorella) brought here, leadership, strong values. We’ve talked about the culture. (Tortorella) was a guy that kept it in order and that’s what we want to continue.”

Related: Blue Jackets Changed Forever Thanks to John Tortorella

As for a timeline, Kekalainen said they will take their time, but they would like to get someone before free agency begins. The league is still playing and opportunities could arise as a result of the playoffs.

It’s obviously way too early to tell at this stage where the Blue Jackets go with this. Kekalainen also mentioned that experience is good but didn’t say it was the end all when considering a coach. I wouldn’t expect anything right away. But starting a month from now, that situation will be worth monitoring.

Centers of Attention

It’s no secret. The Blue Jackets’ weakness is down the middle. Young players Alex Texier, Jack Roslovic and others were asked to play in the top-six at different points in the season. Each struggled for long stretches trying to learn and adjust on the fly.

Compare their current situation to those going into the playoffs and you see clearly how wide the gap in talent is at center. Kekalainen was asked if he felt he had strength down the middle to compete with other teams.

“No. I think we’ve talked about that before that I think we need to strengthen that,” Kekalainen said. “We can strengthen it by getting better at it with the young players that we have. I think (Texier) took some big steps of being able to play center iceman full-time this year which he did and that’s encouraging to see. Max Domi got back to playing center towards the end here and (Roslovic) had a pretty productive year actually offensively.”

Jack Roslovic Columbus Blue Jackets
Jack Roslovic enjoyed a good first season in Columbus. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

It seems clear Kekalainen will try everything he can to land an impact center. With three first rounders at his disposal and cap room, he’s in position in case an opportunity opens up (see Eichel, Jack.) If he can land a skilled center, players can then fall in behind and fill the rest of the roster.

Imagine the Blue Jackets finding someone that can feed Patrik Laine the puck. Imagine Roslovic, Domi or Texier filling in as a second or third line center instead of having to play with all the responsibilities of a top liner. This team has impact wingers. They must find at least one impact center. I just don’t think that player is on the roster yet.

It’s anyone’s best guess as to where this all goes. But the answers to the three items above will dictate the immediate future of the Blue Jackets and the direction they ultimately will go.

Side Dishes

Here’s a few nuggets from the rest of the interviews from Monday.

  • The injured: Zach Werenski, Boone Jenner and Joonas Korpisalo all said their recoveries are going well. Werenski admitted his was better than he thought it would be.
  • Need further proof the veterans really loved Torts? Jones, Werenski all raved about him. They each went on social media to express their gratitude. Then there was Elvis Merzlikins. He shared the first words Tortorella ever told him. “Don’t (expletive) it up, Elvis.” But then he showed appreciation for what he did for his Blue Jackets’ career.
  • Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo know they’re number one’s and each expressed their desire to be a number one whether it’s in Columbus or somewhere else. Goalie trade watch remains on.
  • Laine put the blame for his struggles on himself and not the systems. And as for his desire to stay in Columbus, “I want to stay here for sure.” Kekalainen said they have him under control for two more seasons. Seems to me a trade is not coming here, but I’ve been wrong before.
  • Both Jones and Atkinson didn’t think the season went off the rails just because of the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. But Atkinson did admit that it “caught them off guard.”
  • Laine and Domi each acknowledge the team has a lot of work to do on the power play. Laine went as far as saying it’s more important now to have that clicking in “a lot of these tight games.” The talent individually is there. It’s now a matter of getting it all to click.
  • In all, there is a belief that this team can recover from this season based on the talent that is here. Laine expressed how well the young centers were playing and Jones was impressed with what the young defense was able to do. But it is clear that they want to get back to the standard that was here when things were going well. That’ll be their challenge.

So here we go. The offseason has begun. Players will now either go home or in some cases (Werenski) go on vacation for a little bit. He said he’s going to a friend’s wedding and then going to Chicago to meet with a new trainer after that.

What will this Blue Jackets team look like next season? The offseason of uncertainty will begin to answer some of these questions in due time. But for now, it’s fair to wonder what will all actually happen. I’m not sure the players or front office know everything yet. That’s what will make the Blue Jackets a must-watch team all offseason long.