Who's Next?: Jarmo Kekalainen Speaks On What The Columbus Blue Jackets Will Prioritize In Their Head Coaching Search

By Ed Francis on May 10, 2021 at 10:20 am
General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen has a lot of decisions to make this offseason, including the hiring of a new head coach.

For the first time as Columbus Blue Jackets general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen will have the offseason responsibility of hiring a head coach for the club.

Speaking to media Monday morning, Kekalainen provided his initial thoughts on what the franchise will look for in their new bench boss, when a decision may be made, and whether or not previous experience will be a factor.

When Kekalainen was hired in the midst of the 2013 season, the club already had a coach. Todd Richards was more than halfway through his first season behind the Columbus bench, and would stay there until his 2015 departure when the Blue Jackets started the season with seven consecutive losses. Enter John Tortorella, who until now, has been the only head coaching hire made by Kekalainen.

"It's a little different when you make a coaching change in the middle of the year like we did (with Tortorella)," said Kekalainen.

That version of the Blue Jackets team lacked a true veteran presence, with leader goal-scorers Brandon Saad and Boone Jenner just 23 and 22 years old, respectively. That team also featured Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, and Joonas Korpisalo - all 21-years-old or younger when Tortorella was hired.

A coach with the discipline and pedigree like Tortorella was needed, many argued (and were proven right on). Shortly after his arrival, the club traded 23-year-old Ryan Johansen away in exchange for another young talent: 21-year-old Seth Jones, who is today the odds-on favorite to be named the captain of the Blue Jackets this summer. 

While some of those players remain, the team also now has dynamic offensive playmakers like Patrik Laine and Max Domi, who both struggled mightily in their first season with the Blue Jackets. Kekalainen didn't see the disappointing years as a coaching problem, though.

"I don't think its a system thing," said Kekalainen. "I think (Torts) just demands that you play disciplined and he doesn't let anybody cheat. I've always told every player that comes here that if you work and you compete you'll be totally fine with Torts and he'll let you play your skilled game and give you a little leeway here and there."

"But he's going to demand the same discipline and work ethic from everybody. That's part of the strong culture that he's helped us build here and that's going to be required moving forward, as well."

"He was a guy that kept it in order and that's what we want to continue," added Kekalainen.

Kekalainen admitted, though, that there are different ways to keep the order.

"(Torts) set the standard every day, how we work here and what we do and how we got about our business. I think that's really important," said Kekalainen. "How you go about it; there are different personalities ... and there are different ways to deliver that message."

While he was noncommittal on whether or not any in-house candidates would have an edge with the job, Kekalainen acknowledged that management had not yet met with assistant coaches Brad Larsen and Brad Shaw, and seemed to indicate that the Blue Jackets would look for someone outside of the organization.

"The league is still playing, there's still some regular season games left," said Kekalainen. "We're going to make sure we do our due diligence with all the candidates that we think our worthy of consideration, and that could be a good fit with us. ... We're not in a hurry, we got some ideas already and people we're going to consider but we're going to take our time." 

We're going to make sure we do our due diligence with all the candidates that we think our worthy of consideration, and that could be a good fit with us.– General manager Jarmo Kekalainen

How much time, though, could be a delicate game.

"I don't think that we'll be able to wait until free agency to get a new coach here. I think that decision will come sooner," said Kekalainen. 

With free agency opening in the latter half of July, that gives the Blue Jackets roughly eight weeks to make a hire. One thing they'll need to decide on is whether or not they want to go with a first-time head coach at the NHL level, or go with a more experienced candidate. 

"Experience is valuable but there's lots of different ways to gain experience," said Kekalainen. "It doesn't always need to be from being a head coach in the NHL."

"The ability, the personality, the values ... those are the biggest criteria, and not necessarily the (NHL) experience."

"Experience is valuable but there's lots of different ways to gain experience. It doesn't always need to be from being a head coach in the NHL."– Kekalainen, on whether or not the Blue Jackets will go for a first-time head coach.

While that opens up the door for first-time NHL coaches such as Jukka Jalonen, Rikard Gronborg, both currently in a head-coaching role in Europe, or current Penguins assistant Mike Velucci, it doesn't give a clear indication that Kekalainen will shy away from a coach who has already seen success as an NHL head coach.

Former Blue Jackets coach Gerard Gallant, who took the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season, certainly has to be a name tossed around the front office. Claude Julien, Bruce Boudreau, Bob Hartley are former bench bosses who could be contacted, as well as another former Blue Jacket with head coaching experience: current San Diego Gulls (AHL affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks) head coach Kevin Dineen, who was behind the Florida Panthers bench for two full seasons, qualifying for the playoffs in his first year as a head coach. 

"Experienced coaches would agree with us that we have a lot of good pieces here," said Kekalainen. "This year was obviously a disappointment, but we made the playoffs four years in a row and many of those core players are still here and still in the prime of their career."

"I think we'll find a coach who wants to be part of it."