Sorting through Blue Jackets’ list of coaching candidates

Jarmo has a grocery list long of potential coaching candidates to sort through.

The Columbus Blue Jackets off-season looks to be off to a nice start with the recent re-hiring of President John Davidson. Davidson of course was let go by the New York Rangers a few weeks ago, which stunned everyone in hockey, and though the official reasoning behind it might be murky, everyone in Columbus had sights set towards a reunion.

JD is one of the central figures that helped lay the brick-by-brick foundation when he was initially brought to the club in 2012, and presided over the most successful stretch of Blue Jackets hockey to date.

With that reunion box checked, the next plan figures to be getting the next head coach through the Nationwide Arena doors. General Manager Jarmo Kekäläinen said it was his hope that there would be a new head coach in town by the start of free agency which is set to begin July 28.

On the May 11 episode of The Cannon Cast we talked a bit about potential coaching candidates the Blue Jackets could look to. Names include former Stanley Cup winning head coach Bob Hartley, who previously coached Elvis Merzlikins with the Latvian national team — and current head coach of Avangard Omsk, also Yegor Chinakhov’s club in 2021 — former Blue Jackets player, and current Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach Manny Malholtra, former Blue Jackets player and prior NHL head coach Kevin Dineen, Rikard Gronbörg, coach for the ZSC Lions in Switzerland, and previously coached the Swedish national team, and Jukka Jalonen, head coach of Jokerit in the KHL, and previously coached the Finnish national team.

While I don’t personally know very much at all about Gronbörg, I have heard his name mentioned in regards to the current Blue Jackets opening, and as mentioned on previous Cannon Cast episodes, it makes sense given the amount of European influence on the Blue Jackets roster. Plus Davidson did make a splash when he anointed Kekäläinen as the NHL’s first European GM, though the two knew each other from St. Louis and Kekäläinen had previous NHL front office experience.

More on that front:

Like Grönborg, there could be a good connection between Kekäläinen and Jokerit based on their Finnish roots, including players like Joonas Korpisalo, Patrik Laine, and Mikko Lehtonen. Whose futures are kind of up in the air themselves.

In Portzline's mailbag column in The Athletic (Blue Jackets mailbag, part 1: John Davidson’s impact on Seth Jones’ contract, plus Patrik Laine’s status) here’s what he added about both Grönborg and Jokerit:

This mailbag is a full-service operation. To get your answer, I went to the people who know them best — Finnish journalist Juha Hiitelä and Swedish journo Uffe Bodin.

Here’s Hiitelä on Jalonen: “Very analytical, very system orientated. Very good at creating the right systems for his team and creating the right atmosphere in the locker room. Not a big bench coach. Not stubborn with his systems. Like that world juniors team (2016) with Laine, Aho, Rantanen, etc. played a very different kind of hockey than the men’s gold-medal teams in 2011 or 2019. Some same principal elements, but in many ways, very different.”

Here’s Bodin on Grönborg: “Gronborg is kind of the perfect blend between the North American type and the European type. He was schooled in North America and spent a long time over on your continent, which formed him as a leader. At the same time, you can see the Swede in him as well. For one, he preaches a typically Swedish puck-possession game. When he coached the Swedish national team, he was well-liked due to the way he communicated with the players. I also think he’s a coach that strives to treat everyone the same, no matter which line and D-pairing you are on. He always gave me the evil eye when I asked about different lines, referring to them as ‘the fourth line’ etc. So there’s a sense of ‘Swedish fairness’ in the way he treats players. He does have a temper that sometimes gets the best of him, but he has calmed down since the days he coached the Swedish national junior team.”

We've also heard that Gerard Gallant has since interviewed for the club’s vacancy, and that JD’s former head coach in New York, David Quinn, could be an interview candidate. Even assistant coach Brad Larsen — yes Brad Larsen — interviewed for the role. We know Larsen is most familiar with the Blue Jackets having been a part of the coaching staff since 2014-15, with a heavy hand on the power play.

Aaron Portzline’s article in The Athletic (Blue Jackets Sunday Gathering: Who follows John Tortorella as coach? Plus, a roster projection for 2021-22) featured many of these names and then some. Among those mentioned by Portzline included former head coaches Bruce Boudreau and Claude Julien, former Blue Jackets captain and longtime assistant coach Luke Richardson — was previously part of Julien’s staff —and more including recently dismissed Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, former Calgary Flames head coach Geoff Lambert, assistants like Lane Lambert who has had a long tenure with Barry Trotz, among others.

The list is aplenty and that’s a good thing. Certainly no reason to have a thin list, even if many candidates that are granted an interview aren’t necessarily any sure thing for the actual gig following the interview.

As mentioned on The Cannon Cast, we don’t want a retread head coach. For me, guys like Boudreau and Julien fall under that bucket. I’m not sure guys like Tocchet does it for me. Of course what do I know, and ultimately the right name is the one to get the most out of the current roster mix. That’s for Jarmo to decide, and he certainly should vet as many candidates as possible.

Gallant probably tops my wish list. He has previous ties to Columbus, having coached the Blue Jackets from 2003-07, but more importantly, has been successful as a coach in the league in recent years, most notably taking an expansion Vegas Golden Knights club to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season in 2018. Gallant was fired following a bit of a plateau during the 2019-20 season before the club reaffirmed their positioning to make the playoffs.

Gallant has also interview with the New York Rangers and should be interviewing with the newly formed Seattle Kraken if he hasn’t already. I’m sure he is itching to get back behind a bench and we know he will soon. If Columbus wants to pay him, he figures to be a great fit but it might depend on what ownership values for a particular coach at this time.

Another name familiar to Blue Jackets fans is that of former NHL player Manny Malholtra. This is a name that I specifically thought of and who could be interesting for the team — another reunion — and the first crack at a head coaching gig. He comes well-regarded and is considered a next prime head coaching candidate in the NHL. This article from last year comes to mind.

But I’m also open to someone like Gronbörg or Jokerit. The situation might be a bit of an unknown but aren’t they all? Boudreau and Julien have had varying degrees of success — from winning the Stanley Cup as Julien did with the 2011 Bruins, to Boudreau leading three different clubs to the playoffs, reaching the Conference Finals with the Ducks in 2014-15. But I don’t think they’re the right mix for this current Blue Jackets iteration.

Who do you think should be the next to lead the Blue Jackets? Vote in our poll and make your case in the comments.

Who should be the next Blue Jackets head coach?

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