When the Columbus Blue Jackets hired Brad Larsen as their eighth head coach in franchise history, the questions were fair.
If they're cleaning house, why hire a guy who's been with the franchise for over a decade?
The power play unit was horrible under Larsen, why is that being rewarded?
This is only for the rebuild, right?
Over the last number of months — and especially the last few weeks — those questions are slowly being answered.
He's always excelled at getting the most out of his players, and is now doing it at the highest level.
A good leader will surround themselves with people who play to the leader's weakness.
Larsen was hired in June to replace John Tortorella, the most successful coach in Blue Jackets history. The move came as a surprise to many, who thought another assistant named Brad would be the only internal candidate with a chance at the gig.
Off to a 7-3-0 start, the Blue Jackets have tied their 2017-18 counterparts for the best ten-game start in franchise history. That team lost their 11th game and would drop to 9-7-1 before a six-game winning streak would be a catalyst in securing the team's second straight postseason appearance. This season's team has a chance to secure sole possession of the club's best start ever Friday with a win (or an overtime loss) at Nationwide Arena against the Washington Capitals.
The 2017-18 Blue Jackets were young, ranking 24th (of 31) teams in the league at an average age of 26.8 years old. This team, though, is well over one full year younger than that. Columbus currently checks in at an average age of 25.3, which is 31st (now of 32) in the league. Injuries and roster adjustments have created a degree of fluctuation between the Blue Jackets and the New Jersey Devils for the title of youngest team in the NHL.
The Columbus coaching staff is equally as young. At just 44 years old, Larsen is currently the second youngest head coach in the NHL to Toronto's 41-year-old Sheldon Keefe. Assistant coaches Pascal Vincent and Steve McCarthy 50 and 40, respectively. All three are first-timer coaches in their current role.
While this Larsen's first NHL head coaching job, it's not his first foray into the position of head coach. Larsen led the Springfield Falcons from 2012 until 2014 and was an assistant before that, coaching future Blue Jackets such as Cam Atkinson, David Savard, and current captain Boone Jenner, not to mention Jonathan Marchessault and Ryan Johansen, both of whom found success in the NHL away from Columbus.
More opportunities for development are present today. This is a team whose best sniper is the 23-year-old Patrike Laine. A team whose defensive leader, Zach Werenski, is 24 — and won't hit 25 for the entirety of this season. He's paired with Jake Bean, who is 23 (and will be for the entire season), on the Blue Jackets top blue line unit.
In fact, the Blue Jackets have just two players older than 29 years of age: Gustav Nyquist and Jakub Voracek, both who are 32. The team's third oldest player, forward Gregory Hofmann, is a 29-year old rookie.
Oh, and with Laine out with an oblique injury, Voracek is playing on the top line with two young men who can't buy alcohol until February 2022 — Yegor (how apropos) Chinakhov — and in the case of the 18-year-old Cole Sillinger, May of 2024.
The early success despite the youth of the team and the perceived lack of depth is not coincidence. It's coaching. Larsen is getting the most out of his players, but he also seems to have quickly found the line between letting players play to their strengths and following a system that allows the team to play their style of game. Whether or not the system gets figured out is something only time will tell, but the combination is certainly not a fluke.
No better proof of this comes than with the special teams unit. The power play, which admittingly was a struggle for Larsen when he led it, is off to a 21.4% start. They were 15.4% last season, and haven't finished over 20% since the 2014-15 campaign. There's a long way to go, of course, but with the skill of players such as Chinakhov and Sillinger improving steadily, it's not a stretch to think that the power play stats may get even better as the season goes on.
Another integral part of the mix: resiliency. It's something that the Columbus Blue Jackets have had for a while off the ice, but the on-ice product is showing signs of reflecting that now, too. For just the second time in franchise history, the Blue Jackets have made it past the ten game mark without consecutive losses. The 2010-11 team went 20 games — a 14-6-0 start — before their first multi-game losing streak of the season. The wheels came undone at that point. A record of 14-6-0 quickly became 14-10-1, then 20-20-3, and ended the season on a six-game losing streak to finish a disappointing 34-35-13.
That year's team had talent, led by the 67-point season of Rick Nash. But Antoine Vermette, RJ Umberger, and Kristian Huselius were, along with Nash, the leaders amongst forwards in average ice time. Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon split time as the number one goalie, and it's a fair statement to say that the ending of that season was more reflective of the roster than the hot start they saw.
Larsen's crew gives a much different vibe, though. With respect to the aforementioned names, those players were at (or past) their peak. As currently constructed, this team has a much higher ceiling. As constructed when the injured trio of Laine, forward Max Domi (26 years old), and defenseman Adam Boqvist (21) return, the ceiling only becomes higher.
If Larsen continues to get the most out of his team now, just imagine what he has the potential to do when they're healthy. More than that, imagine what this team will be capable of when they have a little experience under their belt.
As for Larsen only having the job during the rebuild, replacing him with a "better" coach when the team is on the cusp of the next level? The way things are going, Larsen has them on that cusp now — no replacement needed.