Blue Jackets reset and look for path back to playoffs

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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.”

LOOKING FOR LEADERS

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.”

YOUNG GUNS

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.

WHAT ABOUT JOONAS?

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.

HOME SWEET HOME

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.

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