After firing coach Brad Larsen, Kekalainen is placed under the microscope | Michael Arace

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has seen Columbus reach the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons leading the front office.
Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has seen Columbus reach the playoffs in five of his 10 seasons leading the front office.

On the evening of May 3, 1937, the dirigible Hindenburg took off from Frankfurt, Germany, and pointed its nose toward Lakehurst, New Jersey. It flew at a height of 650 feet under optimal conditions, although it often dipped lower, below the clouds, for the sake of visibility. Aside from some headwinds over the Atlantic Ocean, its flight was otherwise unremarkable. It covered the entire distance – 3,897.38 miles – in three days.

And then, with its ropes down, and with crews preparing to winch the ship down to its landing, the Hindenburg exploded in a ball of flames.

Such was the Blue Jackets' 2022-23 season. Their destination over 82 games was last place, which would give them the best chance at winning the draft lottery and their best chance at drafting a generational talent in Connor Bedard. Their journey was largely without mishap, save for some headwinds and a couple of thunderstorms. They made it. They trekked over the continent for 184 days and, just as they were about to be winched down in last place, it all went up in a ball of flames.

The Blue Jackets beat the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime Thursday night. The next evening, the Jackets finished the regular season with a loss to the Buffalo Sabres at Nationwide Arena. And with that, the Jackets finished 31st, or next-to-last, in the league.

Coach Brad Larsen was fired. The axe probably fell sometime on Friday, but it was announced officially Saturday morning. The question is, why? By the end of October, everyone knew the season was going to be a disaster. Larsen managed to steer the dirigible through a million injuries. He had an AHL-caliber defensive corps, and he was forced to use six goaltenders. He got the Jackets within sight of last place, which was the whole point of the season. Was he not a loyal soldier?

We may never know the whole reason behind the sacking of Larsen. Sending Johnny Gaudreau over the wall to score the winning goal against Pittsburgh Thursday night, which cost the Jackets last place, might have been the last straw.

In any case, if clearing out the coaching office (and parting ways with goaltending coach Manny Legace) is the first critical step in changing the locker-room culture and rediscovering an on-ice identity, then it is the right move.

It is also, in all likelihood, the last move general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will make before he himself is on the firing line.

Kekalainen, whose teams have made the playoffs five times during his 10 years on the job, is the best GM the franchise has ever had. That said, the identity of the team began to pixelate during coach John Tortorella’s last season on the job in 2020-21, and it continued to blur over Larsen’s two seasons behind the bench.

The players who defined the ethos of Tortorella’s teams – Nick Foligno, David Savard, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones and Oliver Bjorkstrand, to name a few – were traded away. Others of esteemed stature – Zach Werenski and Joonas Korpisalo, to name two – were shelved with long-term injuries at different points. This season, Korpisalo and Vladislav Gavrikov, gritty housemother for the young Russians on the team, were moved at the trade deadline.

Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner is captain of a squad that might need additional leadership.
Blue Jackets center Boone Jenner is captain of a squad that might need additional leadership.

There are solid, hockey-related cases for all of this change. That does not alter the fact that what was lost in leadership has not been recouped by the likes of Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, to name two who have signed long-term contracts. This is no knock on captain Boone Jenner; no one can question his heart, soul and dedication. But the view from here is that he doesn’t have much help.

This 2022-23 season was billed as a reset, or something like that, when the team signed Gaudreau to a monster contract last summer. That seemed overly ambitious, and even wayward, when it was clear that a more comprehensive rebuild was in order. Early on, the rebuild was embraced, and correctly so.

The problem is that, by the time the Jackets got to Game 82 Friday night, the character they’d built up under Tortorella was long gone and a young (and largely promising) group of players was largely bereft of role models.

The room needs an injection of professionalism and discipline, and if a new coach can begin to change the way the Jackets go about their business (remember that phrase?), all the better.

This is a franchise that has won exactly one playoff series during the entirety of its existence. It has been in 15 draft lotteries and is 0 for 10 when it has had the chance to win the No. 1 overall pick.

This year's draft lottery is May 8. The Jackets have a 13.5% chance of winning the top pick, a 27.9% chance of winning the first or second pick and a 59.9% chance of landing in the top three.

The top prize is Bedard. Imagine the Blue Jackets with their own Steve Yzerman. He would be the one thing the Jackets have never had – a superstar No. 1 center. Adam Fantilli, the projected No. 2 pick, might just fit that bill, too. Centers Leo Carlsson and Will Smith will be there at the top of the board as well.

The Jackets already have some excellent pieces in place and others in the pipeline. Kekalainen is skilled in off-season maneuvering. If he does his job, the Jackets can begin making a hard U-turn next season, and they can be a strong, contending team in two or three years.

In forever forlorn Columbus, is that too much to hope for?

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Blue Jackets season turns to coaching search, NHL draft lottery