Big Choices: New Boss Don Waddell Has Plenty Of Key Decisions To Make This Summer

By Ed Francis on June 13, 2024 at 1:45 pm
From what to do with Patrik Laine to who is behind the bench this fall, there are many questions that loom large for new Columbus Blue Jackets president and general manager Don Waddell.

This time, it feels more true than in the past:

This is the most important offseason in Columbus Blue Jackets history.

It's a phrase that has echoed through the concourse of Nationwide Arena many times over the past quarter century, becoming slightly louder over the past few summers. After all, it really wasn't that long ago that this team was close: two wins from an appearance in the conference finals in 2019. 

It was a place the Blue Jackets had never been before — and haven't been since. The decline was slow initially: a first-round exit in the 2020 postseason after winning a qualifying round of the Covid-shortened season.

Then it was quick: below .500 in each of the last four seasons, including a last-place finish in the last two seasons that saw the team finish in the bottom five of the league but not so bad as to pick up the first overall pick. 

And that was on the ice. Off the ice? Coaching fiascos. Players tapping out of the organization mid-shift. A workhorse defenseman wanting to go elsewhere rather than re-up with the club. Most recently, a general manager who was let go just weeks before the trade deadline.

It's been a bit chaotic, to say the least. 

But this summer brings the organizations best chance at stability in a long time; maybe ever. 

The addition of Don Waddell as the new President and General Manager of the Blue Jackets is a calming, experienced presence for the front office in Columbus. For all that Jarmo Kekalainen was, there were many things he was not. For as much success as John Davidson had in his first tenure with the Blue Jackets, the second go-around left an orange juice-after-toothpaste flavor in the mouths of many, lowlighted by the brief hiring of Mike Babcock as head coach. 

And so, here we are: Waddell is in charge (Davidson will help oversee the transition in an advisory role), and the most important few weeks in club history are upon us. It may sound like hyperbole, but it's really not. The fanbase has been wildly loyal, the young talent is absolutely there and will only get stronger with another top-five pick in this year's draft, and there are talented veteran players on the club. But someone needs to pull it all together, and that might mean tearing some pieces apart.

Here are the biggest questions that Waddell and his group will need to face between now and when the puck drops again this fall:

What to do with (and get for) Patrik Laine?

It was revealed Wednesday by Pierre LeBrun of The Athletic that Patrik Laine would prefer a fresh start with a new team, and that the Blue Jackets are going to work to accommodate that request. Laine has appeared in 174 games for the Blue Jackets over the last four seasons, scoring 64 goals and 74 assists for 138 points. Injuries have had a lot to do with that, but a hit of $8.7 million against the cap is significant given the return. What kind of return Waddell is able to get for Laine has instantly become one of the biggest storylines for Columbus this summer.

Seriously, what's the goaltending situation?

On the day of his introductory press conference, Waddell spoke on Elvis Merzlikins. "We have to spend as much time and resources on this player to try to get him back where he is," said Waddell. "If we do that and it doesn't work, we got to turn the page." Waddell seems like an honest guy, but he's also a general manager: they all seem like honest guys. The first half of his quote was generous, but the last half might be more telling of reality. Merzlikins has statistically been one of the worst goalies in the NHL over the past two seasons. With a cap hit of $5.4 million over the next three seasons, how much longer can Waddell let the situation go on? 

Is time and patience the best way to improve the defense?

The defense has been bad for the last couple of seasons, but with guys like David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk on the way (not to mention a great chance at a top-four blueliner in the draft, should they opt for it), it might be that the best option to get out of the hole the Blue Jackets have dug themselves on the blue line is to keep digging. If Waddell feels that those two guys can help Zach Werenski anchor the defense within the next few seasons, adding pieces via free agency or trade may not be the answer. Pay close attention to what Waddell puts on the roster on this end of the ice because it could give some indication to how close he feels the team can be to winning. Does he attempt to build a win-now defense, or does he let the young guys get comfortable playing NHL minutes?

Speaking of the draft, free agency, and trades...

"I love the draft and I love the trade deadline," Waddell said at the press conference. "Not crazy about July 1 because some of the worst decisions in all of hockey are made on July 1." There's a lot to be learned from these two sentences. One is that the Blue Jackets may not be too active in the free agent market, despite having some dollars available for use. Another thing? The Hurricanes were always a team that liked to wheel and deal and Waddell was, of course, the man pulling those strings on those for the last several years. Could these couple lines be the signs of an active trade market for Columbus over the next few months? 

Who's going to coach this team?

Is Pascal Vincent the right man for this team? Waddell admitted that he had spent only a few minutes meeting the first-year head coach before the press conference began, adding that he would need to take some time and get to know him before decisions were made. That's not a ringing endorsement, nor were the numerous blown leads throughout last season or the fact that Vincent had been passed over several times over the last two seasons for head coaching jobs with other teams. If Vincent returns as the coach, the leash will likely be short. 

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