Jarmo Kekalainen Is Betting Big on Mike Babcock Changing the Course of the Blue Jackets

By Coby Maeir on June 4, 2023 at 8:05 am
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock during the post game press conference against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena. Columbus defeated Toronto in overtime.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On April 15, the Blue Jackets fired head coach Brad Larsen after two seasons at the helm. Seven weeks later, TSN's Darren Dreger reported that Mike Babcock is expected to be Columbus' next head coach. 

In the 42 days since Larsen's firing, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen searched for the team's next bench boss, reportedly speaking with or interviewing Blue Jackets associate coach Pascal Vincent, Peter Laviolette, Kirk Muller, Travis Green, Patrick Roy, and Babcock, whose name first popped up May 16.

The reason Kekalainen is hiring Babcock is clear: he thinks Babcock can change the course of this franchise by raising the team's standard.

"We've felt that we've had a real good culture here for many years where the standard was high," Kekalainen said on May 8. "The way we work, the pride we take in our work was very high. And we have let it slip a little bit in the last couple of years here and now it's time to get back to it."

The goal for Babcock and Co. is also crystal clear: make the playoffs.

"We want to get back into the playoffs," Kekalainen said on April 13. "We've had enough of being on the outside looking in and watching the playoffs on TV."

From Kekalainen's perspective, it seems that he is kicking the team's "reset" into high gear by hiring a coach with Babcock's pedigree. There's a risk to this because rushing a "reset" can set a team back, but Kekalainen thinks that the Jackets are ready to be contenders again. 

But is Babcock the type of coach that this team needs? Is he a builder?

He's got a checkered past that includes a report from Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun that describes a tactic Babcock used on a rookie.

"One tale was related to us in the past few days that is said to have occurred in the 2016-17 season, during the annual fathers trip.

Babcock was alleged to have asked one of the Leafs’ rookies to list the players on the team from hardest-working to those who, in the eyes of the rookie, didn’t have a strong work ethic. The rookie did so, not wanting to upset his coach, but was taken aback when Babcock told the players who had been listed at the bottom."

Johan Franzen, who played with him for 10 seasons in Detroit, called him "a terrible person, the worst I've ever met" in an interview with the Swedish newspaper Expressen

"How would you describe Babcock as a coach and as a person?

– As a coach he is extremely meticulous and well prepared. He is very good at putting a team together and getting everyone to buy into it. That’s his strong side. 

– But then, he’s a terrible person, the worst I have ever met. He’s a bully who was attacking people. It could be a cleaner at the arena in Detroit or anybody. He would lay into people without any reason." 

It's entirely possible that Babcock has learned from his past mistakes, and it would benefit the Jackets if he did, as they have one of the youngest rosters in the NHL headlined by rookie stars 20-year-old Kent Johnson and 22-year-old Kirill Marchenko. Cole Sillinger will be entering his third NHL season and is still 20 years old. If 19-year-old David Jiricek makes the team, it gets even younger. 

In Babcock's three previous stops, the only one where he inherited a young roster was with Toronto, where Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly were all 22 or younger in the 2016-17 season, Babcock's second with the Maple Leafs. 

Maybe a coach that is hard on the players is exactly what the Blue Jackets need, and while his character can be questioned, his resume cannot be. There's a reason he won 700 games, and it's because he's a great coach. But will he be able to adapt to today's NHL player? The answer to that question might define his tenure in Columbus.

If Babcock doesn't win with the Blue Jackets, it could be Kekalainen's last hire as the team's general manager. It's no secret that this hire is critical for both Kekalainen and the team, as they enter an important part of team history which Babcock will be at the helm for. 

Kekalainen has built a core of players that includes Johnny Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, and Patrik Laine, and surrounded them with young talent like Johnson and Marchenko with more on the way, but Kekalainen has made it clear he wants to be back in the playoffs and Babcock is the coach he thinks can take them there. 

No matter who Kekalainen hired, there was going to be pressure to turn this franchise around. Now that he's hiring Babcock, that pressure only magnifies. 

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