After a disappointing season wrought with injuries and a lack of consistency, the Blue Jackets relieved head coach Brad Larsen of his duties on Saturday. They also announced they would not be bringing back goaltending coach Manny Legace, whose contract just expired.
It was a quick head coaching tenure for Larsen with the Jackets, but he had been with the organization for more than a decade in various capacities. He came into the system via the Springfield Falcons, the then-AHL affiliate of the team. Hired as an assistant coach in 2014, he spent seven seasons in that role before being named head coach on June 10, 2021.
Lars would serve two seasons as head coach of the Blue Jackets, with the team carrying a 62-86-16 record in that time. After an 81 point season in 2021-22, the Jackets added Johnny Gaudreau and Erik Gudbranson in the offseason, hoping to take a step forward. Unfortunately for Lars and the club, the injury situation here complicated things and the team ended up with just 59 points – good for 31st in the league.
I want to make one thing abundantly clear: Brad Larsen is a great human being. We can question his abilities to manage the bench or generate good systems all day, but he deserved better than what he had thrown at him over the last two seasons. This team suffered some unfortunate injuries to nearly every significant player this year, and the roster wasn’t really built to contend anyhow.
That said, let’s go over the key points here. We can’t say that his systems failed because, really, were there any systems? The John Tortorella theory of “we don’t coach offense” seemed to carry over to this group, and that’s not the way strong NHL teams are coached. How many other teams do we see coming into Nationwide Arena with a set game plan, where all four lines are rolling in the same direction, interchanging parts as needed?
Defensively, this team was a complete mess during his entire tenure at the helm. Now, it goes without saying that this isn’t all on Lars. In fact, a lot of this might have to due with the personnel – but again, the system didn’t work last year, and this year they changed it; which only seemed to cause a ton of confusion and missed assignments. A big chunk of this blame goes onto assistant coach Steve McCarthy as well, but in the end, it’s Brad’s show.
When you break it all down, it was really obvious that this team needed a new direction. In fact, I would argue that Brad was not hired to contend with this team – it’s possible he was put into this role to fail. As bad as it sounds, part of icing a rebuilding team is putting the right man behind the bench. The most recent example of this, that I can come up with: the New York Islanders hiring Barry Trotz when John Tavares left for Toronto.
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Sure, the Islanders scrapped and plucked and made the playoffs with Trotz behind the bench. They even went on a couple of deep runs. But now, they have an aging core of players who are still fighting for bubble spots, with a thin prospect pool to show for their efforts. Jarmo took the Jackets in the other direction, hiring a coach that would either succeed and surprise us – or fail and become the scapegoat of the rebuild. That’s business.
Manny Legace falls on the sword here as well, and this bit of business is very unsurprising. A lot of the goaltending issues here certainly fall on the Swiss cheese defensive scheme, but in the end, every goaltender who played here this year struggled – except for Joonas Korpisalo. Joonas proved that he could backstop this team capably, which probably didn’t help Manny’s cause.
The situation with Elvis Merzlikins and the unfortunate death of Matiss Kivlenieks, ultimately meant that Legace’s relationship with the team’s #1 goaltender was changed forever. The Jackets have to hope that a new voice here will help rejuvenate the career of Merzlikins, who needs to bounce back if this team is going to claw its way out of the rebuild.
By relieving Larsen of his duties, Jarmo Kekalainen has informally declared this to be the end of the formal rebuild. The next coach he hires will be expected to turn this team around and give them a winning direction – hopefully seeing big improvements as soon as next season. It’s important that this team starts improving soon, because if not, this could be the last head coach we see under this management regime.