Johnny Gaudreau shocked the hockey world when he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday’s opening day of NHL free agency.
But according to Gaudreau — who was one of the hottest free agents of that year — the decision to settle a seven-year, $68.25 million deal with the Blue Jackets was a no-brainer.
“I wanted to come here. This place was always on my list,” Gaudreau told reporters during his introductory press conference on Thursday. “For other players, I’m not sure. We don’t talk about why people don’t want to go to Columbus, it’s not an issue in the dressing room. For me, I just heard so many great things from former players, and I felt sympathy really comfortable with my decision to come here.”
The 28-year-old left winger arrived with the Blue Jackets after spending his entire nine-year career with the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau told the Flames earlier this week that despite general manager Brad Treliving’s efforts to secure an extension, he would not be returning to the team.
Gaudreau went to the open market instead, leaving Calgary after scoring 609 points in 602 games. He had a career-high 40 goals and 115 points in 82 games with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm last season. They’ve been one of the NHL’s best lines all year, and Gaudreau had never put on a better performance.
Calgary was the Pacific Division leader and despite a second-round playoff elimination, the future looks bright for the Flames. The forward still felt compelled to keep going.
“Calgary was a special place for me. I was part of their organization for 12 years,” he said. “I loved every second I was there. But for me it was just about time to make a small change. I’ll leave it at that. But I loved it there. And the fans have been great to me.”
When news broke that Gaudreau would be leaving Calgary, the New Jersey native was immediately attached to teams near his home state, including the Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders. Columbus was not on anyone’s radar as a potential landing spot as of Wednesday afternoon — not even Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen.
Columbus has had to do some creative bookkeeping to manage Gaudreau’s hefty new contract, knowing restricted free agents like Patrik Laine still have qualified offers to accept that will go on the books, but Kekäläinen is confident he can accommodate everyone can.
“When we realized that this was possible and realistic that we could do it, we got to work,” said Kekäläinen. “We were excited and had to deal with numbers and look at different things and we all agreed that if a player of his caliber wants to come here, we just can’t let an opportunity like this pass us by.”
It’s an ongoing narrative that Columbus has trouble retaining talent. In the past, the Blue Jackets have sold Seth Jones, Cam Atkinson, David Savard, Nick Foligno, and others. Kekäläinen said these opinions were unjustified and that Gaudreau’s decision to come on board proved him right.
“I get a rash every time I hear the negative comments about Columbus and it’s so unfair because we have a great organization, we have a great city,” he said. “Sometimes players leave and people think they left, but the reality is we haven’t even offered a contract. We have a great organisation. We have a good team and we’re going to keep getting better.”
That’s what Gaudreau is banking on. He and his wife Meredith – who is expecting – are dating Columbus for the long term to help their family grow. The Blue Jackets have missed the postseason for the past two years, but Gaudreau likes what he sees among their ranks and wants to help the team get back on its feet.
“I think there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “I thought it would be a good place for me personally. We can have a lot of success here. They have good players in this team. And I’m really looking forward to jumping up with this group. I’ve heard a lot of great things. You are one tight-knit group and that’s people you want to play with, guys that get along in the locker room and love to come down to the rink every day and work together and it’s just a healthy environment to be there and that is exciting to me.”