The John Tortorella era has ended in Columbus. The passionate coach took the Blue Jackets further than the franchise had ever gone before, helming the team to one of the greatest upsets in playoff history when the Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2019.
But it all came crashing down this season as the Blue Jackets floundered, finishing last in the division with fewer wins than Detroit and the worst goal differential in the Central. Another talented player left the team disgruntled, as Pierre-Luc Dubois was shipped to Winnipeg for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, only to see Laine and Roslovic run afoul of Tortorella.
In his end-of-year media availability, GM Jarmo Kekalainen said he did not believe in "shelf lifes" for coaches and gave Tortorella credit for building a great culture in Columbus.
"Torts demands that you play disciplined and he doesn't let anybody cheat," Kekalainen said. "That's part of the strong culture he helped us build here and that will be required moving forward, as well."
Change, nonetheless, had to come and the Blue Jackets and Tortorella mutually agreed to part ways. Kekalainen said he is not in a hurry to name a new bench boss and he wants to do his due diligence, though he also said the organization can't afford to wait until the NHL's free agency period opens on July 28. Leadership, strong values and culture will all be key in the decision, but Kekalainen has more than just a coach to worry about: Columbus has been bleeding talent for years now, from Dubois to Artemi Panarin to Josh Anderson.
The Jackets finished 2020-21 with one of the worst offenses in the NHL and while they have found success in the past through defense and goaltending, you can only go so far before you meet a playoff team that has both of those disciplines and scoring (Tampa got revenge on Columbus last year, while Boston knocked them out in 2019).
The most obvious answer to Columbus' woes is Laine, the gifted sniper who scored 80 goals over his first two NHL seasons with the Jets. Laine potted just 10 in 45 games with the Jackets this season. For Kekalainen, the Covid-shortened campaign (with the schedule changes and player absences that went along with it) made it difficult to fully assess everything.
"I think we have some proven goal-scorers here that maybe underachieved this year," he said. "I think they'll bounce back. It's been such a strange year that I don't want to overanalyze it. We have some players with proven histories of scoring goals and we've always been disciplined defensively. We weren't like that this year so we're going to get back to basics, get back to playing the right way."
The Blue Jackets don't have a very deep prospect pipeline right now and two of the best - Kirill Marchenko and Dmitri Voronkov - will still be playing in the KHL next season. Yegor Chinakhov, however, will be coming over.
Chinakhov, the 2020 first-rounder, helped his Avangard Omsk squad win the Gagarin Cup recently, though according to Kekalainen, the youngster missed Game 7 due to Covid protocols. Nonetheless, the Jackets GM got a great report on Chinakhov from Avangard coach Bob Hartley, the former NHL bench boss and Stanley Cup winner with Colorado.
"He raved about Yegor," Kekalainen said. "He said he'll be a really good player with all kinds of skill and an NHL shot. He's an exciting prospect."
Assuming Laine and Chinakhov can accelerate the offense is great, but in today's NHL you need centers to get your dynamic wingers the puck. Dubois was the perfect two-way pivot for today's game but he's gone. The system has no high-end candidates and Columbus has famously struggled to attract high-end free agents to Ohio. So what's a GM to do? Kekalainen is hoping for growth from within.
"We need to strengthen that and we can strengthen that by getting better at it with the young players we have," he said. "Alexandre Texier took some big steps in being able to play center full-time and that's encouraging to see. Max Domi got back to playing center towards the end and Jack Roslovic had a pretty productive year offensively; he just needs to sharpen his game on the defensive side of the puck, on faceoffs and D-zone coverage - but he played full-time center in the NHL for the first time this year. He'll be a lot more experienced next year and hopefully we'll still get the same offense but in a better two-way center."
Roslovic is indeed coming off his best offensive season yet in the NHL, but is he a No. 1 center? Are Texier or Domi? It would certainly take a big leap for any of them to be put in that category, though Minnesota's Kirill Kaprizov is putting up Calder Trophy numbers with Victor Rask as his pivot, so maybe it doesn't matter if your winger is elite enough.
Realistically, the Jackets need to find an elite center or two for the near future and with three selections in the first round of the upcoming 2021 draft, they'll have some options. That being said, this is not a strong draft and the best-case scenario for Columbus may be bottoming out again next season and getting a shot at powerful center Shane Wright of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs (or wait another year and try to land Connor Bedard or fellow phenom Matvei Michkov, though Michkov is a winger).
It was going alright for Columbus for a couple years there under Tortorella and Kekalainen, but a reset is necessary and the coach is already gone. What the GM does in the next calendar year will be crucial in determining the trajectory of the franchise.