Blue Jackets fire head coach, opt not to retain goaltending coach

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The ‘Lars bar’ didn’t last long. 

Two years after stating that Brad Larsen, nicknamed ‘Lars,’ had set the bar too high for other candidates in their search for John Tortorella’s replacement, the Columbus Blue Jackets fired him Saturday as head coach with one contract year remaining. The team also announced that goaltending coach Manny Legace’s contract wouldn’t be renewed. 

The remaining staff, including associate head coach Pascal Vincent, assistant Steve McCarthy and skills coaches Kenny McCudden and Jared Boll, are staying.

Larsen, 45, finished his first head coaching stint with a 62-86-16 record in 164 games. Both seasons were marred by injuries that limited key players for long stretches, including Patrik Laine and Boone Jenner in each one.

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This season, the Blue Jackets set injury-related franchise records in man-games lost (563), goaltenders used (six) and players who suited up for at least a game (47). For that reason, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen made sure to note to the Columbus Dispatch on Friday that wins and losses wouldn’t be factored into the assessment of Larsen’s coaching during a nightmarish 25-48-9 season. 

‘This season has been extremely disappointing and the responsibility for that lies with all of us,’ said Kekalainen in a statement. ‘These decisions were difficult and not made lightly given our respect for both Brad and Manny as coaches and people. Brad has been part of our organization for more than a decade, and we are extremely thankful for his hard work and many contributions – both on and off the ice – during that time. We wish nothing but the best for Brad and his family in the future.’

Kekalainen said other criteria were used, including his own observations from training camp workouts, practices and games.

Larsen played parts of eight NHL seasons for the Colorado Avalanche and Atlanta Thrashers before starting his coaching career with the Blue Jackets in 2010-11 as an AHL assistant with the Springfield Falcons. After two years in that role, he took over the Springfield head coaching role for two seasons before moving up to Columbus as a Blue Jackets assistant in 2014-15 under former coach Todd Richards.

Tortorella took the reins after the Jackets’ 0-7-0 start in 2015-16 led to a coaching shift away from Richards. Larsen remained on Tortorella’s staff for all six years of that coaching era in Columbus before replacing his mentor June 11, 2021 as the Blue Jackets next head coach.

Less than a month into his new role, Larsen and the rest of the organization was shaken by the tragic fireworks-related death of rookie goalie Matiss Kivlenieks on July 4, 2021 at the Novi, Michigan home of Manny Legace – the Blue Jackets’ goaltending coach. Larsen drove to Michigan the next morning to grieve with the Legace family and Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins. 

Two months later, his tenure as the Blue Jackets’ top coach officially began.

It started strong with a 12-6-0 record through the first 18 games, but Laine strained an oblique muscle in the 10th game and missed 19 games dealing with that plus the death of his father in Finland. The Jackets’ good start vanished by the time he returned and it took a couple weeks for their leading goal-scorer to get back up to speed. 

Laine eventually got hot, but the Blue Jackets’ playoff hopes were on life support and faded quickly. This season, Laine was injured three separate times, including a sprained elbow in the second period of the season-opener at the Carolina Hurricanes. It turned out to be the first of many key injury losses for the Blue Jackets, who set a franchise record with 563 man-games lost.

The Blue Jackets also sustained season-ending injuries to forward Justin Danforth (shoulder surgery) after six games, veteran playmaker Jakub Voracek (concussion) after 11 games, top defenseman Zach Werenski (shoulder surgery) after 13 games and defenseman Jake Bean after 15 games.

While missing Laine and Danforth, the Blue Jackets started out 3-9-0 and were blown out in three straight games – first at the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 30 and the next two against the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche in Tampere, Finland. 

It essentially ended the Blue Jackets’ hopes for joining the playoff race in the Eastern Conference and a slew of injuries that followed sealed their fate. Now Kekalainen and John Davidson, the team’s president of hockey operations, are looking for Larsen’s replacement.

Among the available coaching free agents are veterans Bruce Boudreau, who was fired by the Vancouver Canucks mid-season, and Peter Laviolette – who mutually parted ways with the Washington Capitals on Friday after three seasons. 

Laviolette, 58, ranks eighth all-time and third among active NHL coaches with 752 wins in a 21-year career coaching five teams. Boudreau is 20th all-time and sixth among active coaches with 617 wins for four teams over 15 years.

This post appeared first on USA TODAY