Ranking The Candidates: A Look At Seven Options For The Columbus Blue Jackets Head Coach Opening

By Ed Francis on June 21, 2024 at 7:05 am
Todd McLellan is one of many candidates that could be on the radar for the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach opening.
© Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

At a press conference Thursday, new President and General Manager Don Waddell made one thing clear:

Now is not the time for a rookie head coach.

Waddell spoke to media Thursday for the first time since Monday's dismissal of now former head coach Pascal Vincent, saying that the decision to move on was one made by Waddell himself.

"I felt we needed to go in a different direction," said Waddell. "We've been through some younger coaches, and we need to look at an experienced coach to come in here."

Those coaches include Vincent, who was hired last September at age 51, and Brad Larsen, who was hired in 2021 when he was just 43 years old. It was the first NHL head coaching role for both men.

Waddell does not see that happening this time around.

"We need someone who's been in (the head coaching) chair before," said Waddell, adding that they're looking for someone who was previously an NHL head coach.

"We'll have some good choices there."

The question now: who are those choices, and how would they fit with the organization? Here are seven potential candidates for the job, ranked from who should get a pass to who should get the gig: 

#7: Bob Hartley

Age: 63
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Colorado Avalanche (1998-2003), Atlanta Thrashers (2003-2007), Calgary Flames (2012-2016)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 463-361-61-59 (944 games)

Why He's 7th: Hartley is the only coach mentioned by name by Waddell on Thursday, saying that his name has come up but refusing to confirm or deny that he would get an interview. That's probably a good indicator that he's not the least likely of these seven candidates to be offered the job, but he should be — despite the relationship he has with Waddell, and despite the fact that he's won a Stanley Cup. That was literally a quarter of a century ago; players today are not like the players at the turn of the century and nor is the game. Hartley's record as a head coach has gotten worse at all three stops, and he hasn't coached in the NHL since 2016. That makes him the coach on this list with the longest stretch of time sans an NHL head coaching job. Given the changes in the league over the last number of years, it would be fair to wonder if Hartley could catch up to the game fast enough for the Blue Jackets liking — if at all. 

#6: Claude Julien

Age: 64
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Montreal Canadiens (2002-2006; 2017-2021), New Jersey Devils (2006-2007), Boston Bruins (2007-2017)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 667-455-10-152 (1,275 games)

​Why He's 6th: Julien is both the oldest candidate on this list and the candidate with the most games behind the bench. He's also, along with Hartley, one of the two on this list to win a Stanley Cup — that was with the Bruins in the 2010-11 season. Julien most recently coached for 18 games in the 2020-21 season before being fired by the Canadiens despite a 9-5-4 start to the season. Still, the potential issue here could be the same one as Hartley: has the game passed him by? He's an "old school" coach, and while Waddell is seeking a coach with NHL experience, that doesn't mean he wants an outdated style. 

#5: Gerard Gallant

Age: 60
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Columbus Blue Jackets (2003-2006), Florida Panthers (2014-2016), Vegas Golden Knights (2017-2020), New York Rangers (2021-2023)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 369-262-4-70 (705 games)

​Why He's 5th: Gallant is the coach on this list who most recently has led a team to the Stanley Cup finals, doing so with the Golden Knights in their inaugural season back in 2017-18. The recency of that can't be discounted, but neither can this: Gallant has never had a coaching job for more than three seasons, and three of his four firings have come when his team either had a winning record or completed the season with a winning record. That's a red flag. A green flag, though: Gallant is already familiar with the Blue Jackets organization and Columbus, having coached the team for all or parts of three seasons between 2003 and 2006. 

#4: Jeff Blashill

Age: 50
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Detroit Red Wings (2015-2022)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 204-261-72 (537 games)

​Why He's 4th: Blashill has one postseason victory in seven years as a head coach, all with the Red Wings. But those teams were generally terrible, and when they fired him after the 2021-22 season, it felt like kind of a raw deal. They were improving (slowly) every year and were finally starting to develop young talent (Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Filip Hronek, amongst others). Blashill, currently an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning, is going to get another chance to be a head coach in the NHL. If that chance is with the Blue Jackets, there are certainly worse options out there. 

#3: Dean Evason

Age: 59
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Minnesota Wild (2019-2023)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 147-77-27 (251 games)

​Why He's 3rd: In his three full seasons as the head coach in Minnesota, Dean Evason's club made the playoffs three times. They didn't win a series, but the argument could still be made that the Wild exceeded expectations when considering the roster they had. But when you consider Evason for the Blue Jackets job, consider these two things:

(1) When he was given a contract extension by the Wild, he made sure that his entire coaching staff was taken care of first. General manager Bill Guerin said the following: "It's a team-first mentality here, and a lot of it's because of what Dean's brought to the table. He has a ton of respect for his staff and wanted to do it all (the extensions for his staff) on the same day because he didn't want to put himself in front of anybody."

For a club looking for a culture change, that should be music to the Blue Jackets' ears.

(2) He's also helped young Russian winger Kirill Kaprizov flourish. Hey, any of those in Columbus?

#2: Jay Woodcroft 

Age: 47
NHL Head Coaching Experience: Edmonton Oilers (2021-23)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 79-41-13 (133 games)

​Why He's 2nd: He's almost first, and let's start with the elephant in the room: "he couldn't win with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, so he can't win anywhere." Not so fast. In both of his full seasons in Edmonton, the Oilers not only made the playoffs but made it past the first round. 

Yes, the Oilers had a terrible start to the 2023-24 season, which led to Woodcroft's dismissal. But the advanced metrics tell a story of bad luck more than anything else: when Woodcroft was fired, Edmonton was first in expected goals per 60 minutes at even strength (3.31), but averaged just 2.15 (25th) during that time. They were seventh in the league in expected goals against per 60 minutes (2.42), but 23rd in goals against per 60 minutes. Jack Campbell couldn't save if he had a coupon, and was eventually sent to the minors. 

There's also this: Woodcroft had made an offseason change to the defensive structure, from a man-to-man system to more of a "zone defense" that has been successful for some teams. The Oilers were struggling to adapt to the new scheme and Edmonton's front office probably had to make a move to shake things up, but that doesn't mean that (a) the blame can be squarely put on the coach's shoulders or (b) that he's still not a really good coach who deserves another NHL job. 

#1: Todd McLellan

Age: 56
NHL Head Coaching Experience: San Jose Sharks (2008-2015), Edmonton Oilers (2015-2018), Los Angeles Kings (2019-2024)
NHL Head Coaching Record: 598-412-134 (1,144 games)

​Why He's The Pick: McLellan, just barely over Evason and Woodcroft, is the pick here for one reason: he's the best communicator of the bunch, and that makes him the best fit for this team with where they're at now.

Take this quote from Kings alternate captain Drew Doughty to The Athletic in 2019: “He’s very clear, he’s not playing any games, he’s not trying to mess with your head. He wants your practice habits to be good. He wants you to be a good leader off the ice, but his message is always very direct and in the past we didn’t have a direct message. It was kind of like a mind game out there.”

After the Blue Jackets recent blunders in coaching, this is a bells-and-whistles type statement. A coach with a clear message? That was never Pascal Vincent. A coach that isn't here to play head games? The polar opposite of Mike Babcock. A coach that promotes good practice habits? That wasn't part of Brad Larsen's style. 

McLellan doesn't have the most success on the ice of the potential candidates, but in a time where the medium is the message, he should be the one Waddell taps to lead this team forward.

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