Blue Jackets’ next GM likely to come from ‘outside the organization’: 8 early candidates

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson made it clear on Thursday that the search for Jarmo Kekäläinen’s replacement as general manager would begin outside the organization.

“We have no timetable for hiring a new GM, other than when we know we’ve found the right person for the job,” Davidson said. “Our intent at this time is to focus on candidates outside the organization. This is a critically important decision.”

There will be no shortage of candidates.

In the early days of the franchise, the Blue Jackets had a hard time landing candidates. In 2007, when Doug MacLean was shown the door, two candidates — Colin Campbell and Bob Murray — turned them down before they landed on Scott Howson, then an assistant GM with Edmonton.

The roster is in a far different spot now. There are big questions — underperforming, highly paid veterans, a major debate at goaltender, etc. — but the Blue Jackets have an enviable cluster of talented young players, plus one of the best prospect pools in the NHL.

Kekalainen’s time ran out after 11 years on the job, but he did not leave the cupboards bare. If anything, he endured two-plus years of a rebuild, such that a new GM could be seen as coming in at just the right time.

There’s also this: The Blue Jackets have won one playoff series in 24 seasons on the ice, yet still have better-than-deserved support from their fans. They had 18,876 in the building — including more than 700 standing-room-only patrons — when they played Tampa Bay on Feb. 10.

Yes, the 2019 first-round sweep of the Lightning was the franchise high-water mark. But the Jackets lost to Boston in the second round. They still haven’t taken central Ohio on a long, springtime playoff run, the type that builds fans for life out of entire generations.

The next GM, if he handles this job well, will have that opportunity.

Davidson also insisted the search would be done out of the public eye. But that doesn’t preclude us from mentioning a list of candidates, right?

After speaking with several sources around the NHL on Thursday — front-office types, scouts, former NHL GMs, etc. — we landed on eight names that would make sense.

This list is not definitive. It will likely grow first, before shrinking.

Mathieu Darche

Darche, 47, is going to be an NHL GM in the very near future. He was a finalist for the Pittsburgh Penguins’ job that went to Kyle Dubas last spring but has also interviewed in recent offseasons with Chicago, Montreal and Vancouver.

He’s currently an assistant GM with Tampa Bay, playing an important role in their back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and ’21.

Here’s an interesting wrinkle: Darche was one of the first players signed as a free agent when the Blue Jackets joined the league back in 2000. He played in parts of three seasons (2000-03) with the organization, spending most of his time in the AHL.

Chris MacFarland

This would be a bold move by the Blue Jackets, and they’d have to create a new title to lure him away from his current job as GM of the Colorado Avalanche. It’s unlikely MacFarland would even consider leaving the Avs for a lateral move.

MacFarland, 53, has done much of the heavy lifting in building the Avs into one of the NHL’s top clubs, including a 2022 Stanley Cup.

Like Darche, MacFarland has ties to the Blue Jackets. Much deeper ties, actually. He was one of the early hires when the franchise was founded, rising from manager of hockey operations to assistant general manager under both Howson and Kekäläinen.

He was squeezed out of Columbus in 2015 after Kekäläinen hired his longtime friend Bill Zito, who is now the GM in Florida.

Could Jeff Gorton be a fit as Blue Jackets GM? (Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)

Jeff Gorton

The question here is if Gorton, currently the executive vice president of hockey operations with the Montreal Canadians, desires a return to the pressure cooker of a GM’s chair.

Gorton, 55, has extensive NHL experience (32 years) and a long-existing relationship with Davidson, given their time together with the New York Rangers. Davidson and Gorton were fired together by the Rangers after the 2021 season.

Before his decade with the Rangers in various positions, he helped build the Boston Bruins into one of the best clubs in the NHL over the past 20 years. He was interim GM with the Bruins in 2006.

Gorton would not come cheap, though.

Ray Whitney

Another former Blue Jackets player makes the list, but Whitney, 51, has had quite a career after his playing days ended in 2015. He was a finalist for the GM job with the San Jose Sharks in 2022 when they opted to hire Mike Grier.

Whitney has worked in recent seasons for the NHL in its Department of Player Safety, but he’s made clear his intentions of joining a club’s front office. He spent three seasons as a scout with the Carolina Hurricanes.

“The Wizard” was one of the most underrated players in NHL history, including in Columbus. His .93 points per game with the Blue Jackets is second only to Artemi Panarin (1.06) in the franchise’s history. He played 1,330 games and totaled 385 goals, 679 assists.

Derek Clancey

This name may sound familiar to longtime Columbus hockey fans, as Clancey played for the ECHL’s Columbus Chill for four seasons in the 1990s. Since retiring as a player in 1999, Clancey, 54, has worked his way up through the ranks.

He spent 10 years coaching in the ECHL and AHL before becoming a scout with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007-08. After nine seasons as director of pro scouting, Clancey became the Penguins’ director of player personnel.

For two seasons now, he’s been an assistant GM, first with the Vancouver Canucks and currently with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He joined the Leafs last summer after Brad Treliving, also a former Chill player and executive, was named Toronto’s GM.

Jason Botterill

Botterill, 47, has spent the past four seasons as assistant GM with the expansion Seattle Kraken, earning credit for that franchise’s fast start since joining the league. He also has extensive experience as a GM with AHL Scranton and the Buffalo Sabres (2017-20).

After retiring as a player in 2004, Botterill returned to college (University of Michigan) to get his master’s in business. He spent two seasons as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ directory of hockey operations (cap expert) and eight seasons as the Penguins’ assistant GM.

His time in Buffalo didn’t go particularly well. But most think he’ll get a second shot somewhere.

Eric Tulsky

Tulsky has been at the forefront of the NHL’s adoption of analytics over the last 10 seasons, rising up through the ranks with the Carolina Hurricanes, who are seen as one of the league’s most efficiently run franchises.

It has not been an easy path for Tulsky, who never played organized hockey, but he’s been assistant GM with the Hurricanes for the past four seasons. He’s also interviewed for GM openings with Chicago, Pittsburgh and perhaps others.

Chris Clark

We’ll take Davidson at his word that the search will start beyond Nationwide Arena, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Jackets won’t circle back and talk to their own. Clark deserves at least a conversation.

Clark, 47, finished his lengthy NHL career with Columbus in 2011 and soon after joined the Blue Jackets as a scout. He quickly was promoted to development coach, and in 2019-20, he became the club’s director of player personnel and took over AHL Cleveland’s roster as GM.

He was GM of Team USA at the IIHF World Championships last spring.

(Top photo of Chris MacFarland: Michael Martin / NHLI via Getty Images)

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