The cat is officially out of the bag on the worst-kept secret this offseason in Columbus – Mike Babcock was announced as the ninth head coach in Columbus Blue Jackets history on Saturday, prior to the buzz of NHL Free Agency opening at 12 p.m. EDT. The Blue Jackets faithful have had about a month to process the hire, as TSN’s Darren Dreger first reported the potential hire on June 3. Babcock’s eight-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs prohibited Columbus from announcing the hire until his contract ended at midnight on July 1.
The Elephant in the Room
There’s no denying that Mike Babcock is a polarizing figure, and his reputation follows him to Columbus, regardless of the three and a half years he has had to reflect on how his time in Toronto ended. Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, has never been afraid of a controversial hire (see hiring John Tortorella in 2015).
“He’s the right man for the job, and that’s really important. Our organization has some strong values that are never compromised and are non-negotiable, and that applies to myself and everybody sitting at this table [John Davidson, Mike Babcock, Jarmo Kekalainen] and we look forward to working with Mike.”Jarmo Kekalainen, General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets
Babcock has been accused of treating players, specifically young players, poorly during his tenure in the NHL. A conversation Babcock had with Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner has long been at the center of the Babcock allegations, and media members were not shy about asking Babcock the tough questions at his introductory press conference on Saturday. When asked what he would do differently in Columbus compared to his tenures in Detroit and Toronto, Babcock offered a point of reflection.
“My daughter has this line she uses with me all the time, she says, ‘Dad, it’s not what you say, it’s your tone.’ You know, I’m a straight forward guy, honest, hard-working, enthusiastic, but the message sent and the message received often isn’t the same. So, you’re talking to a young man, you think you had a great meeting, you find out later as he talks to one of the assistant coaches, ‘Babs was all over me.’ The ability to communicate and send the right message that you want to send and do it in a way that’s totally respectful, to me, is what the last three and a half years have been about.”Mike Babcock, Head Coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets
Can Babcock Work in Columbus?
As Kekalainen stated, the leadership group in Columbus, presumably made up of players such as captain Boone Jenner, Johnny Gaudreau, Zach Werenski, Sean Kuraly, and potentially others, simply expressed a desire to win when asked about the hiring process. The reality is Babcock has found success in almost every role he has held at the NHL level. In his first year as an NHL head coach in Anaheim, he led the Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. He was behind the bench for a Detroit Red Wings team that made it to the Finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins in back-to-back seasons, winning the Stanley Cup in 2008. The 2023-2024 season may be the third time in 16 full seasons as an NHL head coach that Babcock has to watch the Stanley Cup Playoffs from home.
So what needs to happen in Columbus for this Babcock to be successful? For starters, he needs to prioritize the development of the rising stars the Blue Jackets have been stockpiling over the last few years – Adam Fantilli, Kent Johnson, Kirill Marchenko, Cole Sillinger, and David Jiricek are just a few that come to mind. If there’s a mandate from ownership to get this team back into playoff contention, it can’t come at the expense of Columbus’ top prospects. Elvis Merzlikins is sure to benefit from Babcock’s system, one that prioritizes a defensively sound style of play. Merzlikins re-emerging as the number one in Columbus is a non-negotiable given his contract status and play over the last few years, and this hire could do just that.
Time Will Tell
Kekalainen confirmed a two-year term for Babcock, which makes the hire moderately inconsequential if this experiment doesn’t work out. If things are going smoothly at the end of year one, Columbus may explore an extension with Babcock, but it could be irresponsible to start that conversation any sooner. There’s no doubt that Babcock will be on a short leash, and while success in his first year may not mean a Blue Jackets playoff run, there must be marked improvement. It’s clear that the Jackets are committed to building a roster that suits Babcock’s system, but only time will tell where things go from here in Columbus.