After a tumultuous 2020-21 season ended, it was clear that the Columbus Blue Jackets needed a reset.
John Tortorella had just finished his sixth season behind the bench, and after making the NHL playoffs in four consecutive seasons, the team stumbled to an 18-26-12 record in the Covid-shortened season.
The record wasn't pretty, but even that didn't tell the whole story. Josh Anderson's ugly exit from the team was so clearly less than ideal. A public spat with Pierre-Luc Dubois again put the franchise in the limelight, and "why don't players want to sign in Columbus long-term?" articles were once again in vogue. Simply put, it was time for a change. GM Jarmo Kekalainen had already traded many of the key players from Tortorella's playoff teams, or they left via free agency. A new era was upon us.
The team moved on from Seth Jones in a draft-day blockbuster trade, signaling to the fanbase (and the locker room) that a reset was on the horizon. Perhaps the old saying "the night is always darkest before the dawn" was and is true.
Ever since that trade, the Blue Jackets have been on an upward trajectory. The trade looks better every day, and Cole Sillinger, Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and (what is likely) a top-10 draft pick are key pieces for both the immediate and long-term future of the franchise. Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, who were both acquired in the Dubois trade, had major bounce-back seasons, and the momentum seems to suggest that both will be significant players on the roster, a significant course correction from the narrative even a few months ago. Zach Werenski signed a massive contract extension, signaling to the marketplace, his locker room, the fans, etc. that this franchise can (and will) retain star players.
The on-ice product was far from perfect. The defense struggles were ever-apparent, and there were plenty of nights that the team (particularly the defense corps) was physically bullied. The goaltending was inconsistent. The club still lacks a genuine first-line center.
But I need to take the proverbial 'L' for my thoughts and feelings about the promotion given to Brad Larsen. I was less than thrilled with the hire ("you mean to tell me that the single best guy to run the franchise was the assistant coach on a bad team?"), but I understood then - and accept now - that Larsen's commitment to building relationships matters. For a young team in a league that's getting younger by the day, his ability to get maximum effort from a - let's face it - middling team on a nightly basis should be applauded.
This isn't to say Larsen wasn't without fault. I was frustrated by the coaching staff, namely for (in my opinion) mismanaging ice time for its youngest players. I'm still not 100% convinced he's the head coach of the team in 3-4 years when the team should be at its peak in its lifecycle, but then again, I didn't think there would be a time where coaches like John Tortorella, Joel Quenneville, and Mike Babcock would be available. The point is, he's the right guy for today's team, and let the chips fall where they may.
The Athletic recently ran a fan survey to discover the thoughts and feelings surrounding the team. 1,503 Blue Jackets fans offered an optimistic stance on the outlook of the franchise. Nearly 66% of the respondents said the season has been "better than I expected". A whopping 95% of fans said they were either "mildly" or "very" optimistic about the future of the team.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs, the best postseason in sports, begin later today. The Blue Jackets aren't in it, and that isn't lost on me. A 37-38-7 record isn't typically something worth celebrating. But this franchise is clearly pointed in the right direction, and this offseason offers an opportunity to stockpile more assets. Count me among those excited to see the next iteration of these Blue Jackets.