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Where is the accountability in Columbus?

A historic off-season for the Blue Jackets has been marred by questionable decisions and a poor product on the ice.

Arizona Coyotes v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

Expectations were not sky-high going into the season for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Most fans would have been satisfied with a team that showed improvement and growth and forgiving of a poor result in the standings as long as the team’s trajectory remained pointed upward. The signing of Johnny Gaudreau in the off-season did raise those expectations slightly, even bringing some to believe that the playoffs could be in sight, but most believed that there would be one more year’s wait before a highly competitive team would come out of Columbus. Unfortunately, the team’s performance through just eight games has some fans eyeing the panic button.

There’s something to be said for a GM or owner of a sports franchise that sticks their neck out to a fanbase and declares that fans may have to endure a few bad seasons and some growing pains before they can expect their team to compete for a championship. We haven’t seen that in Columbus. GM Jarmo Kekalainen does deserve some credit for taking the steps necessary to get a combined five first round draft picks in 2021 and 2022, but the messaging from Nationwide Boulevard hasn’t lined up with the decisions that have been made and the results on the ice.

Ever since John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen came to Columbus in 2012-2013, they’ve preached about accountability. In 2022, that bill has come due. They said that this team would compete for the playoffs. They said that Brad Larsen set the “Lars Bar” and was the man for the job. They said they would make moves to make the team better. But now, things look to be heading in the wrong direction.

Brad Larsen

By all accounts, Brad Larsen seems like a fantastic human being. It is also worth noting that he does deserve credit for a team that overperformed last season. This season, however, he is in charge of a team that wasn’t ready out of the gate. He was given the task of making systematic adjustments and preparing his players to play better defense. It’s clear that there has been no improvement. Either the players can’t grasp or execute the system that is in place or the system itself is flawed.

The last season the Blue Jackets were above league average in power play percentage was in 2016-2017. That means for the last six seasons Larsen has been on coaching staffs with underperforming power plays. As of the writing of this article, the team is currently 0 for 20 on the power play this season. Even bad teams have competent power plays — the Arizona Coyotes are currently 8 for 27. There’s simply no excuse for not scoring with Zach Werenski, Patrik Laine, Johnny Gaudreau and Jakub Voracek on this team.

Lineup and deployment decisions should also be examined here. For example, Jake Bean and Erik Gudbranson continue to get caved in on a nightly basis. No changes have been made there. The fourth line hasn’t been consistently effective. No changes have been made there either. It certainly seems that some lineup decisions have been set in stone for this team, no matter the outcome.

Off-Season Moves

The two most glaring needs for the Jackets last summer were at the center and defensive positions. Over the last few drafts, they have been able to add significant talent on the back end with prospects like David Jiricek, Denton Mateychuk, and Corson Ceulemans. Add in other promising young defensemen like Nick Blankenburg, Jake Christiansen, Samuel Knazko, and Stanislov Svozil and all of a sudden the blue line could become a strength of this team in short order. So what did the Blue Jackets decide to do? Sign Erik Gudbranson to a 4 year, $16m contract. The excuses were toughness and veteran experience, but so far Gudbranson has provided none of those things. Not only did the Jackets lose Oliver Bjorkstrand because of the signing, but it kept them from making any moves to improve the center position and will likely continue to hinder other moves in the future.

The other head scratching acquisition was Mathieu Olivier. Hellbent on improving the team’s toughness, the Blue Jackets traded a fourth round pick to Nashville for Olivier. What made the trade even more interesting was the hindsight of seeing how beneficial having a scoring fourth line was for the team in the previous season. So far this season, the fourth line has taken a major step back and hasn’t been nearly as impactful.

On-Ice

In addition to the head scratching moves and decisions the Blue Jackets have made in recent months, the product on the ice has declined from last season. The defense not only hasn’t improved, but it has arguably gotten worse. This team has lost by a combined 15 goals in its 5 losses, a 3 goal deficit in each, including a 6-3 home loss against the Coyotes. With 10% of the season now complete, they are on pace to once again set a franchise record in goals against.

Inconsistency, low energy, and a lack of toughness also continue to be an issue. The team doesn’t respond when a goalie gets run over, they lose one-on-one puck battles, struggle with possessing the puck for long periods of time, and are prone to backbreaking defensive mistakes. Nick Blankenburg came into the lineup and immediately gave the team a jolt by playing with energy and purpose. Without him, they look flat and tired. All of these issues have carried over from last season and little to no improvement has been made.

So what will it take for individuals in Columbus to be held accountable? Even after signing a superstar in Johnny Gaudreau over the off-season, the coaching staff and front office have managed to make this team worse. They have saddled themselves with contracts that will need to be bought out, haven’t done enough to improve at positions of need, and haven’t made the necessary adjustments to improve the performance on the ice. There is too much talent on this team to be getting blown out in 60% of their games. Fans aren’t expecting a Stanley Cup this season, or even next, but they do expect to see progress, not whatever this is.