Blue Jackets reset and look for path back to playoffs

blue jackets
Getty Images

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Brad Larsen had a ringside seat as the Columbus Blue Jackets tanked down the stretch last season. He watched how players conducted themselves when the going got tough.

Larsen, then an assistant under coach John Tortorella, was in a good position to judge character as the losses piled up and the team sold off popular players. He thinks that insight gives him an edge as he assembles a roster for the first time as an NHL head coach.

“I really took the opportunity to watch, especially the last six weeks of the season, people responding on the bench, in practice, their habits in the gym,” said Larsen, who was chosen to replace the fired Tortorella. “If your eyes are open and your ears are listening, you hear stuff and interactions. Some guys rose in those situations even though we didn’t win — and some guys, there were concerns.”

Larsen didn’t name names, but it’s clear from recent signings who will form the core of the retooled Blue Jackets. They are all players he knows well. Forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand and Boone Jenner are signed through the 2025-26 season, defenseman Zach Werenski is locked up through 2026-27, and goaltender Elvis Merzlikins just signed an extension through ’26-’27.

Gone are the players who were the faces of the Columbus teams that went to the playoffs for four straight seasons under Tortorella. Popular captain Nick Foligno landed in Boston, Cam Atkinson was traded to Philadelphia for Jakub Vorecek, All-Star Seth Jones wound up in Chicago via free agency and fellow blue-liner David Savard helped Tampa Bay win a second straight Stanley Cup.

Voracek is a 32-year-old winger who was drafted by Columbus and played here early in his career. The Blue Jackets also added center Sean Kuraly, along with promising young defensemen Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist.

There are continued high expectations for returning forwards Patrik Laine, Alexandre Texier and Gus Nyquist, the latter of whom missed all of last year recuperating from shoulder surgery.

Larsen and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen believe it’s a team that can contend immediately.

“I read some stuff or I hear some stuff — ‘is this a rebuild, is this a rebuild?’” said Voracek, who played in Philadelphia for 10 years. “I will say, if it was a rebuild, I don’t think Jarmo would trade for me, you know? You don’t want a player with an $8 million cap hit on a team that is rebuilding, if I’m not mistaken. So I’m excited about everything going on.”

The Blue Jackets fizzled last season and finished 18-26-12 in the pandemic shortened season.

“This past year, with not playing for anything at the end of the year, you’re out of the picture,” Jenner said. “It’s a tough feeling, and we haven’t been there for a while. So I think it just made us hungrier over the summer, more excited to get back this year, just trying to prove ourselves again as a hockey team.”


The departure of captain Foligno and alternate captains Atkinson and Jones left a leadership vacuum in Columbus. Jenner, who wore an “A” last season, is a candidate, as is Werenski, but Larsen said he wants to let training camp play out before making those decisions.

“One thing that’s going to be intriguing to watch is the chemistry in the room,” Larsen said. “It’s changed. It’s shifted, and as leaders shift in that role with different guys, they need to accept that opportunity. We’re going to be watching closely.”


With so many spots up for grabs, the Blue Jackets are hoping some recent draft picks can advance quickly. Eighteen-year-old Cole Sillinger, the 12th overall pick in the 2021 draft, made a splash at prospect development camp. And 20-year-old Yegor Chinakhov, the Blue Jackets’ first-round pick in 2020, was the rookie of the year in Russia’s KHL last season.


The Blue Jackets obviously want to build around Merzlikins. But Joonas Korpisalo has been in Columbus for the past six seasons and is capable of being an everyday goalie. Both are 27, and they split time in the net last season. Korpisalo will be an unrestricted free agent after this season.


The Blue Jackets play five of their first six games at home, including the opener Oct. 14 against Arizona. The final week of the season in April includes two games against the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and a visit to Washington to play the Capitals.

Scroll Down For:

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports

    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

    matty beniers
    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.