In the discussion of most irrelevant franchises in North American sports, the Columbus Blue Jackets would be high on the list, if not on top of it, if anyone could remember them enough to add them. You’d think they’d take some inspiration from one of their former fellow whos-its, the Denver Nuggets, becoming one of the best and most watchable NBA teams and barrelling toward their first championship.
The Jackets have done two things in their 23 years of existence. Win one playoff series — which was one of the biggest upsets in NHL history — when they swept the unholy force Tampa Bay Lightning– and sign last summer’s prized free agent in Johnny Gaudreau. One wonders what Gaudreau is thinking today, after he made a beeline out of Calgary to get away from noted red-ass coach Darryl Sutter to hearing the news that the Jackets are going to hire one of the few bigger red-ass coaches in Mike Babcock.
Babcock certainly has credentials. He took a previously irrelevant Anaheim Ducks to a Stanley Cup Final, took the Wings to two of them and won one, as well as kept their beloved playoff streak alive afterward, and then returned the Toronto Maple Leafs to the playoffs after a streak of only making them once in 10 years. If it’s results the Jackets are after, perhaps Babcock is as sure of a thing to deliver them. At least he was, but he’s been out of the league for a few seasons now, and there’s a good reason as to why that is.
It’s just the method with which he does that, as it was revealed long ago that after about a day or two in charge, none of Babcock’s players can stand him. Tales of his verbal abuse to Johan Franzen, whose career ended thanks to concussion problems that Babcock didn’t seem to take very seriously, shocked the hockey world. He pitted his Maple Leafs players against each other, while also bullying its teenage stars. Various employees around the Wings and Leafs were only too happy to share what a truly miserable experience having Babcock around was to their work life.
The Jackets already tried this route not so long ago with John Tortorella, and that worked out as you might expect, with very little on the ice and a heaping helping of disenchantment off it. Brad Larsen was brought in after Torts, seemingly going the tyrant followed by a players’ coach path, but Larsen couldn’t produce much of anything because the Jackets were basically bereft of talent.
This is the NHL, where if you got one job you will get 17 more, no matter the craters and ash you leave in your wake at the last ones. After all, Joel Quenneville was whispered to be getting back into the rat race. The Jackets could have looked for an original solution and find a coach who can hold his players responsible and accountable for their work without using methods that we long ago deemed destructive and futile. But this is Columbus, where progress isn’t something they’ve ever shown much interest in.
One must wonder why GM Jarmo Kekäläinen has carte-blanche and a lifetime appointment as GM in Ohio, seeing as how his teams have had one 100+ point season in his 10 years on the job, have never finished higher than third in their division, and have the one playoff series win. Kekäläinen’s 10 drafts have produced Zack Werenski, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Alex Wennberg, the last two having gone on to star not for Columbus, but for Seattle. But then when you’re saddling your players with coaches like Tortorella or Babcock, it’s not a huge shock when they don’t produce much for you.
Maybe Babcock has changed his ways. Maybe he’s learned. In the NHL, all you have to do is say that you did and that you’re kind of sorry and someone else will hire you. Maybe the Jackets can find more stars like Gaudreau who want to play kind of close to the East Coast without any of the East Coast scrutiny or pressure. The combination of Babcock and Kekäläinen will assure that the Jackets need some kind of anomaly like that to go anywhere.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.