It’s ‘Put Up or Shut Up’ Time for Columbus Blue Jackets Leadership

Four important contracts expire after this year, and they don’t belong to players

One year ago today, John Tortorella signed an extension to coach the Columbus Blue Jackets through the upcoming 2018-19 season. In September 2016, CBJ ownership extended team president of hockey operations John Davidson, general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen and assistant general management Bill Zito through the upcoming 2018-19 season. Suffice it to say, that’s a key leadership group facing possible unemployment unless the Blue Jackets…do what, exactly?

Quick recap of CBJ seasons under Davidson, Kekäläinen and eventually Tortorella:

2012-13 (Kekäläinen enters in February): 24-17-7, miss playoffs
2013-14: 43-32-7, lose in first round
2014-15: 42-35-5, miss playoffs
2015-16 (Tortorella enters seven games in): 34-40-8, miss playoffs
2016-17: 50-24-8, lose in first round
2017-18: 45-30-7, lose in first round

Those past five and a half campaigns represent the most successful era in Blue Jackets history. There’s no doubt this leadership group has taken the franchise to new heights that includes a slew of club records and a Calder Cup championship, albeit still without an NHL playoff series to their credit. Kekäläinen has also proven a savvy GM overall, pulling off some fantastic trades, picks and negotiations (Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Sergei Bobrovsky’s contracts come to mind) despite some missteps (Nathan Horton, Brandon Dubinsky).

This summer, largely expected to feature some humdrum free agency pickups and perhaps some extensions for key players, was thrown into chaos by Artemi Panarin’s public desire to leave town after this year. Now, Kekäläinen faces one of the biggest dilemmas of his career. His two biggest moves to date, Jones for Ryan Johansen and Panarin for Brandon Saad, paid immediate dividends and came out of nowhere. Conversely, the general manager currently finds himself without maximum leverage and staring down a deadline to move one of the best forwards in the NHL. It’s an unenviable position, but it’s also why he makes a six-figure salary. The resolution of the Artemi Panarin saga will certainly affect the outcome of this season, and, by extension, a bit of Kekäläinen’s professional fate.

The main question for team president Mike Priest and owner John P. McConnell: what does success look like? If the Blue Jackets set the league on fire but bow out in the first round, does anybody get the axe? And who? What if they squeak into the playoffs and advance into the second round, but just barely? It’s doubtful CBJ ownership has a minimum threshold for this leadership group to keep their jobs, but you’d have to think it would involve at least a series win if it existed. But does another first-round exit really merit a scorched-earth mass firing?

You don’t have to even leave the division to find the last time something like this happened as newly installed president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello canned Garth Snow and Doug Weight two weeks into his tenure last month. The difference there, of course, is that Davidson—Lamoriello’s counterpart here—is included in Columbus’s expiring contracts.

Ideally, the team turns in another successful season with marked improvement for contract extensions all around. But with all four men’s deals expiring at the same time, it’s put up or shut up time. Columbus isn’t Toronto and the franchise’s abysmal history has allowed a little more leeway when it comes to gradual improvement, but all the chips are pushed firmly in the middle of the table now. Staggered deals would make it easier to find a scapegoat for a disappointing season, but that’s not an easy option anymore. The leadership group has been in place for years and is tied firmly together. How would you qualify the success of Kekäläinen relative to Tortorella’s? What role would key injuries play in evaluating who stays and who goes? It’s a messy proposition, and quite a bit can change in the next few months before players hit the ice. No matter what, the contract status of CBJ leadership may prove just as intriguing as CBJ players this year.

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