Pascal Vincent finally got his big break as the head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The journey to this point was not expected, having to navigate the waters of the Mike Babcock episode that emerged right before training camp. But now Vincent is here and at the right time for the Blue Jackets as they close in on the start of the regular season.
Vincent has head coaching experience with the Manitoba Moose and had opportunities with the Blue Jackets over the past two seasons when filling in for Brad Larsen.
Vincent interviewed with the Calgary Flames over the summer but remained set to return to the Blue Jackets bench on Babcock’s staff.
Imagine if he had left.
The Blue Jackets hope to make an ascent up the standings this season.
It's been since 2019-20 when the Blue Jackets had a winning record and were in the playoffs. That was the COVID bubble year, and the Jackets have been trying to navigate their rebuild and trend back towards contention status since then.
We're going to find out how close the 2023-24 Blue Jackets are to being a serious contender in the league. Growth among the core is a start of what you want to see with this team for this season.
Can Cole Sillinger rebound from a year in which he closed out last season with the Cleveland Monsters?
Will Kent Johnson build off his 40-point season, and can Kirill Marchenko continue his rampant scoring pace?
Will the goaltending improve upon a disastrous last season?
These are just a few questions in which the Jackets hope to see positive responses and growth.
A Hall of Famer as a player, assistant coach Mark Recchi is in the fold and will help run the power play. The power play has needed work for a long time, but we did start to see improvement last season.
From Jan. 1 through the rest of last season, the Blue Jackets power play converted at a 20.2% clip, good for 17th in the league and just behind the Carolina Hurricanes (20.3%).
From Feb. 1 through the rest of the season, the power play was 13th in the league (21.1%). Mar. 1 through the rest of the season, they were 13th (22.2%).
Recchi scored 200 power-play goals during his illustrious 22-year playing career in which he ranks 19th all-time.
#CBJ coach Pascal Vincent said assistant coaches will have "total control" to present and teach the power play (Recchi now, presumably) and penalty kill (McCarthy) to players, but the other coaches will challenge their strategies all the time.— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) September 25, 2023
"We are all gonna work on it."
The 2021-22 Blue Jackets under Larsen were a fun team that scored nearly as many goals as they allowed. In 2022-23, amid loftier expectations after acquiring Johnny Gaudreau, the season was pretty much over as soon as it started, with a 0-3-0 start and 3-7-0 October mark.
Last season, the Jackets registered 59 points, a 22-point reduction from Larsen's first season. Contributing to the downfall was a franchise record for man games lost (563 games) leading to another franchise record in which the club started 47 different players.
New #CBJ head coach Pascal Vincent is speaking now: "Our plan is to be a highly competitive team. We will be working extremely hard, but also we want make sure that our fans are proud to be Columbus Blue Jackets fans."— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) September 18, 2023
What ultimately led to Larsen’s demise was the lack of development and structure on the ice but also inside the locker room.
As The Athletic's Aaron Portzline reported at the time of Larsen's dismissal, players said "'little things' were allowed to slide over the last couple of seasons, and how badly a winning standard needs to be recaptured."
With the rampant injuries, it wasn’t fair to judge Larsen on wins and losses but other flaws came to roost and forced a change.
If injuries are an issue again this season, that speaks to more significant organizational flaws, and it would be tough sledding for Vincent. However, the Jackets head into the season with a surplus of depth on the blue line and at forward.
How these players and evolving lines emerge is playing out during camp.
There might be surprise players like when Justin Danforth and Alexandre Texier each emerged two seasons ago. Now both are back and looking to play major parts.
The best players are going to have to be the best players. So much of the core is learning as they go at the NHL level and a lot hinges on Johnson, Marchenko, and Adam Fantilili. This is where Gaudreau and Laine will lead by example on and off the ice.
A continuation of what we saw last year could be Laine playing center as he did for a few games last season under Vincent.
#CBJ coach Pascal Vincent on trying Patrik Laine at center, where he skated today: "He really wants to do it. ... If it doesnt work, we havent lost anything because he can go back on the wing and he has a better understanding of somebody elses job. To me, its a win-win."— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) September 27, 2023
If Columbus can eclipse at least 80 points, that will signify a step in the right direction. Not the 'Lars Bar' of 81 points that Larsen's club set in his first season, but a 22-point increase indicates significant progress.
Of course, a lot goes into that.
If wins aren't piling up, but the Blue Jackets are competing hard every night as Vincent has promised, the Jackets are in many games, and their players are all developing as the season goes on, that's a sign of progress.