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Culture will continue to be key as Blue Jackets search for new coach

Kekalainen outlines what he's looking for in a new CBJ bench boss

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Flash back to October 2015 and the words of the then-newly hired head coach of the Blue Jackets seem prescient almost six years later. 

"As quickly as it's gone with lack of confidence and it's gone south a little bit, you can get that quickly back and get the ball rolling the other way," John Tortorella said when he was hired to take over a struggling team searching for an identity. 

"It has to be together. We have to be talking and helping one another through this here, and I do think we'll get this going in the right direction quickly." 

In many ways, Tortorella proved to be right. Over the next six seasons with the highly decorated coach at the helm, the Blue Jackets made four playoff appearances, played the best season in franchise history followed by the second, third and fourth best campaigns, and earned a pair of postseason series victories. 

Of course, as fans know, this year didn't follow that trend of success, and after tying for the bottom spot in the Central Division, Tortorella and the Blue Jackets mutually agreed to part ways Sunday. 

Video: GM Kekalainen Presser (5/10/21)

But perhaps general manager Jarmo Kekalainen won't have to look too hard to find a replacement for the winningest coach in team history. In many ways, as the general manager looks to replicate the quick turnaround Tortorella foresaw in 2015, he says the same values he found in Tortorella are the ones he'll be looking for in a new bench boss. 

"I think it's important the coach sets the standard," Kekalainen said Monday in his postseason press conference. "I think that's why Torts was so good. He set the standard every day of how we work here and what we do and how we go about our business. I think that's really important, how you go about it. There are different personalities, but I think strong values and the standard, that's the key to the selection process that we have here. 

"I think the coach has to be the leader of the group and set the standard and show us the way and keep the strong values there every day. That was the biggest thing that I liked about John Tortorella was he wouldn't allow you to cheat. He wouldn't compromise the standard, ever." 

So while a different voice will be leading the Blue Jackets next year, the message might not all that different. At the very least, it seems fair to say what Kekalainen admired most in Tortorella -- an honest approach and commitment to doing things the right way -- is what he'll again be seeking with this hire. 

There are no shortage of names available, from proven NHL coaches to up-and-coming assistants even to former Blue Jackets players who have gotten into the coaching ranks, and Kekalainen has likely had some time to think about his next move as the season played out to its end. 

But with some teams still concluding their regular seasons and the Stanley Cup Playoffs still to come, the general manager is in no hurry to get it right. 

"I think we're going to take our time," Kekalainen said. "The league is still playing. There are still some regular-season games left. Other organizations are going to make their decisions at the end of the regular season, maybe even after the first round of the playoffs. 

"We are going to make sure we do our due diligence with all the candidates that we think are worthy of consideration and could be a good fit with us. We're not in a hurry. We have some ideas already and people we are going to consider, but we are going to take our time." 

That due diligence may have started Monday, when the general manager met with some of the team's veteran players to discuss the direction the team could go. While it's not likely that individual candidates were discussed too in-depth, it was a chance for Kekalainen to get a sense from team leaders of what they'd like to see next after a disappointing season. 

"We already sat down as a leadership group and discussed some of the topics that we wanted to bring tup to Jarmo," alternate captain Seth Jones said Monday before the meeting took place. "I'm sure he's going to have questions for us as well, and we're going to question him on some things. I think it'll be a great conversation for us to have.  

"Hopefully we can come out with some answers. I'm sure he wants answers from us and we want some feedback from him as well on how we can get this thing moving back in the right direction." 

Whichever direction the Blue Jackets go -- the list could include assistant coaches Brad Larsen and Brad Shaw, though Kekalainen said he had not discussed the job with either yet as of Monday -- it will constitute a change for a Blue Jackets team that at its best took on Tortorella's passionate and hard-working identity. 

With Tortorella having been with the team since early in the 2015 season, there are many Jackets leaders that have never played for another coach with the franchise, a list that includes Jones, Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand among others.  

Cam Atkinson doesn't fit that bill, as he debuted under Scott Arniel and also played under Todd Richards, but he blossomed into an all-situations standby under Tortorella and admitted things will be a bit different. 

"I am sure with whoever Jarmo decides to bring in, it will be a great fit for us," he said. "Torts was my coach for the last six years so no matter what it's going to be different. The expectations of training camp and how you practice and how you approach a game, I think that's definitely helped me become the player I am today for sure. There's no question.  

"Whoever Jarmo does bring in, I know how to prepare and I know how to get ready for a game and practice and training camp and stuff like that, as well as every other guy that has been here playing under Torts for the years he's been here, so yeah." 

Just know that while there is a natural inclination to think the Jackets will pivot from a perceived disciplinarian to a players' coach, Kekalainen is still looking for a mentor who will demand the best from his charges. 

"(I'm looking for) similar qualities that (Tortorella) brought here -- leadership, strong values," he said. "We have talked about the culture. He was a guy that kept it in order, and that's what we want to continue." 

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