By MITCH STACY AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets will take a deliberate approach to hiring a replacement for John Tortorella, who stamped his brand on the franchise over six seasons and carried it to unprecedented success.
“I think we’re going to take our time,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said Monday, a day after the apparently amicable break with Tortorella, the winningest coach in the team’s 20-year history.
“The league is still playing, there are some regular season games left and other organizations are going to make their decisions at the end of the regular season, maybe after the first round of the playoffs,” Kekalainen said. “So we’re going to make sure we do our due diligence with all the candidates we think are worthy of our consideration and would be a good fit with us. So we’re not in a hurry.”
Longtime NHL coaches Bruce Boudreau, Claude Julien and Gerard Gallant have been floated as potential candidates for the job.
The 62-year-old Tortorella was in the last year of his contract, and the separation wasn’t a surprise after a tumultuous season that saw the Blue Jackets plunge to last place in their division amid Tortorella’s admitted failure to influence the team culture.
Stars Zach Werenski and Boone Jenner were lost to season-ending injuries. The trade deadline brought the sell-off of beloved captain Nick Foligno and defenseman David Savard, two of the foundations of the team during Tortorella’s tenure, as well as veteran center Riley Nash. The Blue Jackets limped to an 18-26-12 finish.
The retooling will continue in earnest this summer.
“I think a lot of good coaches would agree with us that we have a lot of good pieces here,” Kekalainen said. “This year was obviously disappointing, but we made the playoffs four years in a row, and many of those core players are still here and still in the prime of their career. We have strong goaltending, we have one of the best D-pairings in the league (Werenski and Seth Jones) and some talented young players. I think we’re going to keep growing here, and I think we’ll find a coach who wants to be part of it.”
Signing Jones, the team’s best player, to a long-term contract is critical on many levels. He will be an unrestricted free agent after next season and allowing a fan favorite to walk away would be poor optics for a rebuilding team trying to fight the narrative that nobody wants to play in Columbus. Based on the current market, the 26-year-old Jones will command around $10 million per year.
“He’s probably the most important piece to this puzzle,” veteran forward Cam Atkinson said.
ELVIS OR KORPI?
Columbus has a pair of proven No. 1 goaltenders whose contracts expire after next season. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo both want to play regularly but were rotated this season when heathy. Despite a depressed goalie market this summer, one could be traded as the Blue Jackets seek established offensive players. Both goalies say they’d prefer to stay in Columbus and be the starter.
“Nobody is stupid here,” Merzlikins said. “We understand there are two No. 1 goalies on one team. I don’t think both are going to stay, but you never know. I don’t want to go into the business, but Korpi, he wants to play, I want to play, and to share the net I don’t think is best for our future.”
ATTRACT FREE AGENTS
Kekalainen is expected to look to free agency to add some offensive players, with the center position a priority. Jones said the players’ leadership group planned to meet with Kekalainen on Monday, and one of the topics would be the more aggressive steps the team can take to attract top free agents who want to play here.
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By MITCH STACY AP Sports Writer