COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Toward the end of his last press conference for the 2021-22 season, Columbus Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen was overcome with emotion.
He was discussing CBJ’s leadership team: alternate captains Zach Werenski and Oliver Bjorkstrand and captain Boone Jenner. Larsen broke into tears discussing how Jenner, who tried to play through a debilitating back injury, came into his office mid-March in tears about not being able to keep going.
“Boone Jenner. Tremendous year and we lose him at a really key time. You know, the poor guy, he’s coming to me in tears ‘I can’t do it anymore,'” Larsen said, pausing to shed a few tears of his own. “He cares. He cares a tremendous amount and it was killing him he couldn’t go play.”
CBJ’s captain thought he was letting his team down. In reality, he provided exactly what this young team needed — perspective. They saw how their captain was willing to play until he quite literally couldn’t anymore.
It was a common theme for a CBJ team that went 37-38-7, missed the playoffs for a second-straight year but never backed down from the fight. Columbus had more than 20 come-from-behind wins this season, a true testament to three players who had never worn a captain letter on their chest prior to this year and to their first-year head coach.
“I think he proved in the first year that he’s going to be a good one and probably going to have a long future in the National Hockey League,” CBJ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said about Larsen. “Just like on the players’ side, our coaching staff can grow, too, and that’s exciting.”
Growth and excitement about that was a recurring theme during Monday’s post-mortem presser. There are plenty of areas CBJ needs to get better, most notably defense, where they allowed a franchise-record 297 goals in a single season.
“Is it the system? Do we need to make changes? Can these guys grow into the system?” Larsen asked with genuine curiosity. “We’re going to talk about all these things . . . I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way, but I do know it has to get better.”
One thing that doesn’t need improving is the offense. Columbus scored the most goals in a single season (258), and saw the true potential of 24-year-old Patrik Laine who’s a restricted free agent this offseason.
“He’s expressed that he wants to stay here, we want him to stay and now it’s just finding the common ground,” Kekalainen said.
Laine played in 56 games and tallied 56 points. He missed two months with an oblique injury and dealt with tremendous grief during his recovery process after his father died in November. He somehow managed to come back from both injury and loss to become CBJ’s premier goal scorer, netting 19 goals in 22 games.
“He’s a guy who grew a ton for me and not just in the goals, but his commitment was very evident,” Larsen said. “To me, there’s still so much more room to grow in a positive way.”
It remains to be seen whether Laine’s growth, and that of this entire team, will be enough to return to the playoffs. But one thing is clear — the Blue Jackets are on the right track.