A month after the Columbus Blue Jackets and John Tortorella consciously uncoupled, the team announced their new head coach: Brad Larsen. Larsen had spent his entire coaching career in the Jackets organization, first with the AHL Springfield Falcons, then the last seven as the assistant coach in Columbus in charge of forwards and the power play. Since the news broke on Thursday afternoon, I’ve had a range of emotions as I processed the hire and what it means for the team moving forward.
It came as a surprise to many when it was revealed that Larsen was among the candidates being considered for the job. Surely this was just a courtesy, as reward for his years of service and to make him look more attractive to some other team who would hire him as an assistant or an AHL coach, right? But if it were just a courtesy, why was Brad Shaw not granted an interview as well? Then Larsen was listed among the small group who had received a second interview, and GM Jarmo Kekalainen fed quotes to Aaron Portzline defending the Larsen candidacy. It was also reported that Larsen was popular among players in the leadership group.
But then, on Thursday afternoon, a glimmer of hope that perhaps there was still a chance that instead the Blue Jackets would hire the best coach available:
Elliotte Friedman: Trusts Portzline's report regarding Larsen being the front-runner, but doesn't want to rule out Gerard Gallant just yet. Adds that #CBJ players have let it be known Gallant is someone they'd like to play for. Columbus hoping to get something done this week.— CBJ Coverage (@CBJcoverage) June 10, 2021
Alas, less than two hours after that, the team made the Larsen hire official.
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING HERE? WHAT ABOUT HIS WORK AS AN ASSISTANT EARNED HIM THIS CONSIDERATION?
Larsen was infamous among the Jackets faithful because we knew that he was in charge of the power play, and we knew the power play was bad.
From 2014-15 through 2020-21, Brad Larsen has been in charge of the #CBJ power play. The overall success rate over that span is 17.8%. That's tied for 26th in the league, with Nashville. Behind ARI, ahead of DET, MTL, ANA, OTT— Pale Dragon (@PaleDragonCbus) June 10, 2021
You had a guy like Gerard Gallant right there, who apparently was eager for a second chance to coach in Columbus. A coach who won a division title in Florida, took an expansion team to the Stanley Cup Final, and just this month won a gold medal at the World Championships despite coaching a Canadian team that consisted of Bob & Doug McKenzie and a moose. But noooooooooooo, just can’t miss a chance to promote a coach whose forward group was 20th in the league in goals per game during his tenure, with just three of those years being in the top half of the league.
2014-15: 2.77 (t-12, with Minnesota)
2015-16: 2.60 (t-18, with Minnesota)
2016-17: 3.01 (6)
2017-18: 2.88 (17)
2018-19: 3.12 (12)
2019-20: 2.57 (t-27, with San Jose)
2020-21: 2.39 (t-28, with Buffalo)
2014-2021: 2.74 (t-20th, with Edmonton)
Larsen’s contract is three years long, so perhaps he’s just a placeholder? The team is entering a rebuild, apparently, so he gets to be a caretaker then the team can hire a proven coach to take the team to the next level once the next wave of picks and prospects is ready to contribute.
After all, if you’re all aboard the tank train, shouldn’t you want a bad coach to increase the odds that this team gets a high draft pick for the next few seasons?
On the flip side, maybe it’s a good thing he has the support of the locker room. Maybe his experience as a player will allow him to relate more to those players. Maybe he does have ideas that Torts wouldn’t allow him to implement. Maybe he can hire great assistants who can finally fix the power play.
What hurts the most about the hire is what it says about the front office, their process, and their philosophy. Jarmo said he had a “Lars Bar” that he compared other candidates to. Why was Larsen the default? How had he earned that? Were they giving other candidates a fair shake if they were going into it with Larsen as the de facto front runner?
Another concern I have is the John Davidson influence on the search. If it were 100% up to Jarmo, would he have considered a European head coach, or someone from the college ranks? Instead, when JD returned to the organization, he indicated that he was looking for a coach with NHL experience. That narrowed the pool of candidates.
Gallant was a genuine candidate, but one wonders if money was factor in him not getting the job. He’s in high demand, and a coach like that carries a big paycheck. It’s not clear that Jackets ownership is willing to spend that kind of capital on the team, especially with the loss of revenue over the last year and a half. If the team isn’t going to be good, and if that drives attendance down, then you might as well save money by having a bargain bin coach.
This, of course, creates a vicious cycle with the fanbase. Ownership and management haven’t spent enough to keep the best players in Columbus, and that makes the team worse which drives the attendance down. Low attendance means low revenue, which further justifies Mike Priest’s penny-pinching.
How long will this rebuild last? Two years? Five years? Ten and counting, like in Buffalo? Is Larsen the first in another string of failures like King, Arniel, etc.?
In the end, after all of this sound and fury signifying nothing, the Blue Jackets are my team and Brad Larsen is the head coach. I wish him well, because I want the team to succeed, even if I disagree that certain decisions being made are in the best interests of the franchise in the short and long term.
I will also say that the press conference on Friday made me feel somewhat better. I’m not convinced that this is going to work, but I was sold on Larsen as someone to root for. Having a group of players there to support him is a good sign. I appreciated his humility. He is willing to listen to the input of others, and acknowledge his shortcomings. He still wants this team to be well-conditioned, and to work hard, but he may combine those good attributes of the Torts era with a softer touch. His own playing experience may allow him to communicate with the players better. His experience in the AHL (95-45-11 record in two seasons) shows that he can work well with young players, and this team should have a lot of young players on it as more and more veterans get shipped out.
I don’t expect this team to be a playoff team next year, but I hope they try hard in every game, and I hope that we can see development on an individual level from the young players who would be the foundation of the next playoff team here. If that happens, then the Larsen hire can be a successful one.