Todd Richards. (Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Blue Jackets have yet to register a single point in six games and coach Todd Richards has found himself on the hot seat, but things won’t improve unless GM Jarmo Kekalainen can make a move to fix a shaky blueline.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have played six games this season and they’ve lost every single one of them in regulation. With the campaign nearly two weeks old, Columbus doesn’t have a single point and there’s no simple solution for what ails them. Instead, there are only questions about how things have gone this way so far.
One of the early targets drawing the ire of Blue Jackets fans is coach Todd Richards, but much of the hope heading into this season came from Richards’ ability to make the most of an injury-riddled roster in 2014-15. Columbus got off to a rocky start last season, but with the campaign winding down, Richards’ Blue Jackets turned in an outstanding stretch of 16 wins in their final 20 games. It was too little too late, but it gave the Blue Jackets hope about what could come in 2015-16 with a healthy roster and a new top-line left winger in Brandon Saad.
But instead of celebrating a new-look Blue Jackets team with a healthy roster, fans are wondering if this group will even have a coach should they lose Tuesday to the New York Islanders. And instead of the players celebrating early successes, the club has resorted to cancelling annual events with the hope something, anything, will shake some life into this team.
Should Columbus indeed lose Tuesday to the Islanders, that could signal the end for Richards. Sure, he helped the Blue Jackets earn their second playoff berth in franchise history in 2013-14, but that’s a distant memory. And if a six-game winless streak didn’t put enough writing on the wall, there are already reports of potential replacements for Richards, including John Tortorella and Guy Boucher, according the New York Post’s Larry Brooks.
The worrisome thing about Richards’ Blue Jackets losing six straight to start the campaign is his clubs have had a habit of going through prolonged slumps. In 2012-13, his first full season as coach, Columbus had five losing streaks of three or more games in a 48-game season. In 2013-14, they lost at least three straight contests six times, including one five-game drought. With mammoth losing streaks of seven and nine games, the 2014-15 campaign was no better.
Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen stuck with Richards during the seven-game drought, though. And Kekalainen again held fast while Richards’ team dropped nine straight. But this performance — this six-game start-of-season losing streak for a team that was supposed to take a big step forward — could be it. Even still, Kekalainen assured that he wasn’t looking to make any rash decisions.
"If there was a change to be made on any level, where we thought this is the right change for our team and it's definitely going to make the group better, we would have done it," Kekalainen told The Columbus Dispatch’s Aaron Portzline Monday.
While that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Richards, it might mean he will be given the chance to figure this out. First and foremost, he desperately needs to find a way to shore up a defense that has been downright awful while Kekalainen goes out and finds his club some help on the back end. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been hung out to dry on a number of occasions, and the results aren’t going to get much better if it continues.
Through six games, the Blue Jackets have allowed 30 goals — nine more than any other team in the league — and have a minus-17 goal differential, making them the only team to crack double digits on the negative side. Bobrovsky’s save percentage through five games is an abysmal .835 at all strengths and a league-worst .830 at 5-on-5. He has a goals-against average over 5.05 and has allowed 23 goals on 139 shots. The result has been a disheartened and clearly shaken Bobrovsky battling through one of the worst stretches of his career.
The troublesome defense is even more evident when considering the Blue Jackets offense has been able to produce 13 goals through six games. Even teams who have scored less, like the five-goal Anaheim Ducks and six-goal Los Angeles Kings, have picked up victories. Same goes for the seven-goal Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, both of which have two victories this season.
"I don't think we've defended as a unit,” Kekalainen told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central Friday before his club lost 6-3 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Twenty goals against in four games is unacceptable. That’s a terrible number. That doesn't happen because of one person. It happens because you don't defend well as a unit.”
Making matters worse for Richards is that he hasn’t been able to truly rely on any of his blueliners outside of the pairing of Ryan Murray and David Savard. Together, the two are the only Blue Jackets defensemen who have been able to consistently move the puck out of the defensive zone. For that reason, the duo is drawing close to 45 percent of the club’s defensive-zone starts. Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson have been sloppy in their own end and Dalton Prout and Kevin Connauton haven’t been trusted with many defensive zone starts.
It was no secret Kekalainen pursued a blueliner during the off-season, but now the need for someone to play a top-four role has reached its peak. Columbus reportedly chased Christian Ehrhoff, but he signed with the Kings. It’s hard to say that any of the remaining free agent defensemen would fit in Columbus, either, with players such as Lubomir Visnovsky, Andrej Meszaros, Bryan Allen and former Blue Jacket Jan Hejda among the top defensemen available.
Columbus does have a number of talented prospects, so maybe a trade could be worked to land a veteran defenseman to shore up the back end. Since May, Kerby Rychel has been the subject of trade rumors and the 21-year-old has two goals and four points in two AHL games this season. He could draw some interest, as could goaltender Anton Forsberg and winger Oliver Bjorkstrand. But at that point, the Blue Jackets will have to do the math: is mortgaging the future worth it to bust a slump that may correct itself before the season even enters a place where it needs to be salvaged?
As Kekalainen pointed out to Portzline, there’s no reason to make a move for the sake of making a move. Were Kekalainen to try to fix his roster from a place of panic, it could do more harm than good. "We're not going to just blow it up because we're going through a tough stretch,” he said.
No matter the move Kekalainen makes — be it firing Richards or a deal for a defender — there are going to have to be some tough choices made and it might be best to make them sooner rather than later. There are still 76 games left in the season and a ton of time to make up ground, but if the Blue Jackets can’t start piling up points by the end of October, a once promising season could be heading down the drain in a hurry.