COLUMBUS, Ohio — It will go down as one of the most memorable days in franchise history, the moment the Blue Jackets not only landed the biggest name in this year’s free-agent crop, but perhaps the moment the rest of the NHL started seeing the city in a different light.
Johnny Gaudreau had his pick of NHL clubs, from big metropolitan cities to hockey-mad Canadian cities. The highly skilled left winger, who is coming off a 115-point season, could have had a bigger payday had he stayed with the only NHL club he’s ever known, the Calgary Flames.
But in a move that stunned hockey fans everywhere — especially in central Ohio — 28-year-old Gaudreau chose the Blue Jackets to spend the prime of his career, signing a seven-year, $68.25 million contract on Wednesday at Columbus. The deal will net Gaudreau $9.75 million each season, which is also the cap hit. Gaudreau also has a no-move clause for the first four years, then a limited no-trade clause for the last three years.
Why did Gaudreau choose Columbus? How did the Blue Jackets, who never got past the second round of the playoffs, land one of the NHL’s star players?
Gaudreau said the Blue Jackets were on his list before the free agency period opened, based on his experiences at Nationwide Arena and conversations he’s had with current and former Blue Jackets, who raved about it.
“I had never been to Columbus before I made it to the NHL, so when I first started playing I didn’t know what I was getting into and I was just… ‘Wow!'” Gaudreau said the athlete by phone late Wednesday. “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I then said to myself, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.’
“But it was more than that. I played at the (World Championship) with Zach Werenski. I’ve known Eric Robinson for 15-20 years. And some former guys like Cam Atkinson and Dalton Prout… those guys just said, ‘You’re going to absolutely love this place.'”
Gaudreau joked that his controversial relationship with the Nationwide Arena cannon, which detonates every time the Blue Jackets score, has already had a change of heart.
“This cannon scares me a bit, and I’ve bumped into this cannon a couple of times,” said Gaudreau, who will be formally introduced in a press conference on Thursday. “I didn’t want to hear it before. Now I want to hear it all the time.
“Hopefully we can really make this thing shine this season.”
The move has the potential to propel the Blue Jackets back into the Eastern Conference playoffs after a two-year hiatus. (Yes, GM Jarmo Kekalainen plans to sign and retain restricted free agent Patrik Laine, although $5 million in moves will be required to get below the NHL’s salary cap.)
Perhaps just as important is what this means for the off-ice franchise. After beating Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the Blue Jackets lost significant talent and earned – perhaps unjustly – a reputation for not being an attractive place to play.
Kekalainen started his conversation with the athlete emphasizing how important Gaudreau is to his vision for the club, how his presence on the ice will make the Blue Jackets a more dangerous offensive club, etc.
But it means so much more.
“I think we can finally get rid of the bullshit that this is kind of a bad destination, bad city or whatever,” Kekalainen said. “Because it was never true. We got a bad rap because a few people were deciding all the time that they wouldn’t stay here long term for various reasons, but it was never about the city or the organization.
“We just had to shut up and deal with it, but every time I see a comment like this I get a rash.”
The Blue Jackets have contacted big-name free agents in previous offseasons. Three years ago they discussed an offer sheet with Toronto forward Mitch Marner but never got it signed. Two years ago they had talks with veteran defender Alex Pietrangelo before signing with Vegas.
Their first contact with Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, was to be similar. The Blue Jackets had Gaudreau high on their wish list and made an offer shortly after the window opened at 12 p.m. Eastern.
Many expected Gaudreau to sign with a club near his childhood home in New Jersey. Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and New Jersey were considered favorites. But in the afternoon, the Blue Jackets were warned that they were very strong in the running.
Kekalainen met with the media around 3pm to discuss defender Erik Gudbranson’s signing. Sometime after that meeting, talks with Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets turned serious.
“It kind of came out of the blue,” Kekalainen said. “What, are you serious?
“Everyone talks about him being one of the biggest fish on the market. We’re always going through our list and when the time comes we’ll contact the people who are at the top of our list but to hear that they’re one of the teams they’d like to join…”
Calgary had reportedly offered eight years at $10.5 million a season, but Gaudreau decided early on that he would not return to the Flames. The Flyers, long expected to be the target, didn’t make an offer, GM Chuck Fletcher told reporters, because it would have prompted other trades from Philadelphia.
New Jersey was bidding seven years and more than $9 million a season The Athletics Pierre Le Brun.
The move was a stunner, even by free agency standards.
“This guy wanted to come here,” Kekalainen said. “When you get a player like this, of that caliber, you have to move and that’s basically what we did.
“He’s obviously a superstar. It’s a must when a guy like that tells you he wants to come here.”
Gaudreau said he was happily unaware of the hockey world’s reaction to his signing. He hadn’t been on Twitter all day, he said.
“To me, these are all sounds from outside,” Gaudreau said. “I’m super excited about where I am. I think it was a great decision for me and my wife and we are over the moon right now. super excited.”
Gaudreau’s wife, Meredith, is a pediatric nurse. She is expecting the couple’s first child in late September.
“Hopefully the guys will let the new guy off for a few hours so I can witness it in person,” Gaudreau joked.
The Blue Jackets had too many forwards and a glut of wingers before this signature. A week ago, Kekalainen had to offload some strikers to make room for his young talent and get a decent chance in the line-up.
Now he must take several steps forward to get below the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap. If you’re planning an $8.5 million contract for Laine, the Blue Jackets will be at least $4 million over the cap. But they need more than that to account for injuries throughout the season.
“We thought about it long and hard,” said Kekalainen. “We are confident that we can make everything work. That doesn’t change our position on Laine at all. We’ll approach (negotiations with Laine) as if it’s a work in progress, but we have plans to keep them both.”
It’s someone else who needs to move. Oliver Bjorkstrand? Gustave Nyquist?
The Blue Jackets haven’t had even minor cap issues since the 2019 season, but it’s a small price to pay to add a player like Gaudreau.
In 82 regular-season games last season, he had 40 goals and 75 assists, trailing only Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (123) in points. He was third in assists and led the overall NHL with a plus-64 rating.
Since becoming a regular in 2014-15, Gaudreau has 608 points, trailing only McDavid (697), Patrick Kane (687), Sidney Crosby (640), Leon Draisaitl (616) and Brad Marchand (609) over that span.
Gaudreau has played primarily on the left wing, but he can play on either side of the middle. The Blue Jackets could use him with Laine or Jakub Voracek on his outside wing.
“He goes everywhere and he will make everyone around him better,” said Kekalainen. “He’s that good.
“Last year he had 115 points. Check out our power play now. Look at how we can put the game on the ice and now again we have a man who can drive the game like a center but from the wing.”
The Blue Jackets organization has had few opportunities to bask in the glory like Wednesday’s signing of Gaudreau.
There was June 22, 2002, the day they drafted #1 overall Rick Nash; April 8, 2009, the first time they secured a playoff spot; and April 16, 2019, the night they defeated Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
Add another line – July 13, 2022: The day Johnny Hockey picked Columbus.
(Top Photo by Johnny Gaudreau: Sergei Belski/USA Today)