Blue Jackets’ Woes Won’t Be Solved By Firing Kekalainen

The Hockey Writers

Yes, we’ve been here before. It almost seems like deja vu. It’s the middle of November and the Columbus Blue Jackets are in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. Adding a new head coach, two top-four defenders, and a shiny new third-overall draft pick have only been enough to get the team one single point in the standings higher than they were on Nov. 16, 2022.

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This team has been lost. They’ve searched for an identity since their “all-in” season in 2018-19 when they ousted the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in four games, lost to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist, Boston Bruins, and then lost two cornerstone players in Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin to free agency. They’ve since parted ways with taskmaster John Tortorella and burned through two more coaching regimes led by Brad Larsen and Mike Babcock, which were turbulent for exactly opposite reasons.

Jarmo Kekalainen Columbus Blue Jackets
Jarmo Kekäläinen, Columbus Blue Jackets, 2015 NHL Draft (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Jarmo Kekalainen has been the general manager (GM) of the Blue Jackets since 2013. He is the third-longest tenured at the position in the NHL. During that time, he’s been at the helm for the most successful years in franchise history. Most notably, five of the team’s six postseason appearances have been under his watch. However, the last three seasons without a playoff appearance make for the third-longest drought in the team’s quarter-century of existence. While it might seem like the time to make a change at the top, it’s not yet time to completely blow things up.

It’s Too Soon in the Rebuild to Go Nuclear

A change for the Blue Jackets at the GM and president of hockey operations positions would not be the end of the world. We’ve seen teams make this type of decision before with positive results. Stan Bowman replacing Dale Tallon with the Chicago Blackhawks just before the 2009-10 season comes to mind.

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Now, I use that example because it’s definitely not an equal comparison, but the Blackhawks’ three championships in six seasons have to be what Kekalainen and his crew are hoping to achieve one day. When you take a look at the NHL’s repeat champions since the turn of the century and how long it took them to go from drafting their core players to winning championships, you might be surprised.

Related: Blue Jackets Need to Move Beyond Moral Victories

Let’s start with the Blackhawks. In 2002, Duncan Keith was their first key core player drafted. That was followed by Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford in 2003, Bryan Bickell in 2004, Nicklas Hjalmarsson in 2005, Jonathan Toews in 2006, and Patrick Kane in 2007. Their core drafted players were all selected three to eight seasons before their first Stanley Cup in 2010.

Let’s look a little more recently at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have an even longer span of time before winning back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021. Alex Killorn was the first core player drafted in 2007, just before the real rebuild kicked in with Steven Stamkos in 2008 and Victor Hedman in 2009. The next two key pieces were drafted in 2011 with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat and followed by Andrei Vasilevskiy in 2012, Brayden Point in 2014, and Anthony Cirelli in 2015. Their key players were all drafted in a span of five to 13 years before winning big.

Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning 2020 Stanley Cup
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning was drafted 12 years before winning his first Stanley Cup in 2020. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Blue Jackets started their rebuild or retool, or whatever they’re calling it, in 2020. They had a couple of semi-successful runs and realized the core that they had assembled didn’t have what it took to be serious contenders and began selling pieces. If you draw the line there, the team is only three years into a rebuild, which is not enough time to warrant results.

If you go back further and look at the core who should be a key part of the Jackets’ core when they’re a contending team, it starts in 2015 when Zach Werenski was selected. By that starting pistol, the team has eight seasons worth of building, which is equal to the Blackhawks but still five years short of the Lightning.

Every rebuild looks different, but the Blue Jackets have built one of the best prospect pools in the NHL and now they just have to wait to see what they will reap from the seeds they have sewn. Based on the historical timeline of recent champions correlated with that pool, they’ve probably got three to five years before their championship window opens.

Now is Not the Right Time to Oust Kekalainen

There’s also an argument that this point in the season simply doesn’t make sense for a change at the top. The Babcock fiasco this offseason was a dark cloud heading into the year and could have warranted the firing of Kekalainen on its own. Instead, ownership opted to hold on for a little while longer to see how things turned out. We still don’t know how things will turn out yet from the decisions made this offseason.

The Blue Jackets are slumping under new head coach Pascal Vincent, which is something to be expected from a rookie NHL bench boss. Star forward Johnny Gaudreau doesn’t look right, which is something that should eventually pass. The “Patrik Laine at center” experiment is now taking a back burner, which should help his production. There are a lot of variables that could still be cleared up by the new year.

Johnny Gaudreau Columbus Blue Jackets
Johnny Gaudreau still has time to rebound this season for the Columbus Blue Jackets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The benchmark was set by Kekalainen before the season when he said, “We want to be a team that’s going to compete for a playoff spot until the last day. If we make it earlier, great. But we want to play meaningful games throughout the season and be ready to make it to the playoffs here very soon. Not only to make the playoffs, but our goal is to compete for the Stanley Cup. As we keep growing, that’s going to be very realistic for this group.”

Meeting that bar isn’t completely out of the question at this point in time. Ultimately, the Blue Jackets are still only five points out of a wild card spot. Making up two and a half games worth of points in the final 66 games of the season is far from impossible, but they’ve got to turn it around soon.

Also, to say there hasn’t been growth so far would be overlooking a lot of things. Kirill Marchenko and Dmitri Voronkov have stepped up as key pieces in the forward corps. Top draft picks David Jiricek and Adam Fantilli have earned spots as NHL regulars and Fantilli is tied for the lead in team scoring as a 19-year-old. There are a lot of bright young pieces leading the way.

That’s not even mentioning how both Blue Jackets’ netminders are over .900 in save percentage (SV%), something that is a small but marked improvement over last season. Or how depth players like Erik Gudbranson, Justin Danforth, and Alexandre Texier have stepped up their games over the past several weeks. Once the Blue Jackets’ best players become their best players again, this team is a winning streak away from playoff contention.

I agree with an outraged corner of the fanbase that the goodwill built up by the Finnish GM is deteriorating quickly. However, I find it hard to believe that the team would chop off the head of this regime before the calendar hits 2024 or maybe even before the final game of the season. Now is simply not the right time for this to be the change made. Ohio’s team will have to jumpstart themselves with another big move.

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