The Columbus Blue Jackets surprised the entire hockey community, and the sports world as a whole, when they dipped their toe into the free agent pool on Wednesday afternoon and came away with the biggest prize of them all, 28-year-old superstar, Johnny Gaudreau.
Making a cool $9.75 million AAV on a seven-year contract through 2028-29 for a total of $68,250,000, Gaudreau took less money than what was reportedly offered by the franchise that drafted him, and whom he spent the first nine years of his career, the Calgary Flames.
Sounds like Johnny Gaudreau left somewhere between $15-17.5 million on the table in Calgary by choosing Columbus, depending on final total.— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) July 13, 2022
Not sure anyone saw that coming.
There were thoughts he wanted to play closer to his hometown, since he's from Philadelphia, and the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders were reportedly in play.
When the Gaudreau to Columbus signing was announced early Wednesday evening, the move reverberated around social media, leaving many experts and prognosticators to wonder how?! And make no doubt about it, the biggest free agent signing in Blue Jackets franchise history is big for today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
As for his new teammates.
Kent Johnsons first thoughts on playing with Johnny Gaudreau:— Dylan Tyrer (@DylanTyrer) July 14, 2022
Super excited! Amazing player, he was actually the main reason I started wearing number 13.#CBJ
#29?? https://t.co/Br6IE3KKTJ— Jakub Voracek (@jachobe) July 14, 2022
For at least one day, the narrative of stars not wanting to be in Columbus is silenced. Even though Gaudreau addressed that question head-on during Thursday's introductory press conference, saying that's not a topic amongst players. As The Athletic's Aaron Portzline mentioned, Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen knows how important this signing is for many reasons.
“I think we can finally get rid of the bullshit that this is somehow a bad destination, a bad city, whatever,” Kekalainen said. “Because it’s never been true. We got a bad rap because a couple of people decided all along that they weren’t going to be here long-term for various reasons, but it has never been about the city or the organization.
“We’ve just had to shut our mouth and deal with that, but every time I see a comment like that, I get a rash.”
More importantly than that, what the Blue Jackets get in Gaudreau is a winger coming off his best season to date, finishing tied for second in the NHL with a career-best total in points (115), and he had career-bests in goals (40), assists (75), and was a league-best +64. In 602 career games played, he has accumulated 210 goals and 399 assists for 609 points.
In short: The Blue Jackets have one elite, dynamic forward. One that brings production and excitement reminiscent of Artemi Panarin's Blue Jacket tenure on the wing, and slots right into head coach Brad Larsen's top six.
"It's the obvious, right?" Larsen said. "He's an elite player. He's established. He's been a producer his whole career. When a name like that comes up, there are only very few opportunities you get at somebody like that."
Nationwide Arena will be abuzz on Oct. 14, the home opener, against the Tampa Bay Lightning and will continue to be so with a player of Gaudreau's nightly talent on display. As people wonder about Gaudreau's motives for why Columbus?
Gaudreau answered those questions during Thursday's press conference, mentioning how fun it is playing in Columbus, a close-knit dressing room, and even mentioning the buzz by the hometown crowd.
Off the ice, Columbus being a spot he wanted to raise a young family certainly played a part.
Perhaps he was also intrigued, looking at an up-and-coming Blue Jackets team that will now be all around him, as they showcased offensive firepower, and have designs on scoring bigger goals in the form of more wins in the standings. That up-and-coming star talent in the form of Cole Sillinger, Kent Johnson, and others in between surely played a part.
"Something I'm excited about is playing with a new group of guys," Gaudreau said. "They've got some really skilled forwards up front. (Patrik) Laine has probably one of the best shots in the league after (Alex) Ovechkin the way he snaps the puck and gets it off so quickly."
While we await the next steps of what happens with Laine's contract situation, it sure sounds like Gaudreau is very much a fan of playing alongside No. 29, and one can imagine what that combo might look like.
Keeping Laine in the fold long-term will require some special massaging of the salary cap, requiring some domino to fall in regards to other players currently on the roster. Right now, the Blue Jackets boast one impressive forward corps.
Gaudreau, a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy winner in 2016-17, six-time All-Star, and a member of the 2022 NHL First All-Star Team, will bring electric play on the ice and playoff leadership to the room. The leadership-in-the-room sentiment might be a phrase we gloss over but it can't be understated how significant that has a chance to be in a young dressing room and on a budding core.
Not to compare the Blue Jackets with teams like the New York Rangers who went from out of the playoffs to the Eastern Conference Finals in one year's time, but a team certainly gets better faster when you add a player capable of scoring over 100 points in a season, averages nearly 35 goals a season, and one who puts up 1.40 points per game, the latter being fifth-best in the league last season.
When you consider Gaudreau, Laine, Sillinger, Johnson, players like Oliver Bjorkstrand, Gus Nyquist, and facilitator Jake Voracek, one can imagine the scoring prowess Columbus now possesses. Any way you slice it, very scary scoring combinations and a formidable top-six. Think about the potential for the power play.
Ahead of the blockbuster signing, it appeared the Blue Jackets' biggest move on Wednesday was a four-year contract for defenseman Erik Gudbranson, noted ex-Flame, and teammate of Gaudreau's last season. For all the grief the news of that signing elicited from the fanbase, the reaction post-Gaudreau signing is a complete 180.
Perhaps Gudbranson was more than a blue line addition but also a piece to entice Gaudreau?
It probably didn't hurt but it sounds like he had his mind nearly made up ahead of free agency!
Gaudreau: "This was a place always circled on my list. I heard so many great things from former players, and it made me feel really comfortably with my decision to come here." #CBJ— 1st Ohio Battery (@1stOhioBattery) July 14, 2022
In addition to Gaudreau's gaudy counting stats in goals and points, he finished second in the league (first on the Flames) in GF/60 (4.8) at 5v5 with a minimum of 800 minutes ice-time—Calder nominee Michael Bunting was first (4.82). Gaudreau's 3.25 xGF/60 was 22nd in the NHL and second on the Flames behind teammate Matthew Tkachuk. The 5v5 success continued, as Gaudreau led the league in goals for (96) while on the ice and the 71.64 GF% he put up was second in the league behind Tkachuk, all stats per Natural Stat Trick.
As for those not nominated, Johnny Gaudreau was arguably the best playmaker this season, a demon off the rush who dominated at even strength.— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 12, 2022
With #13 on the ice at 5v5, the CGY scored 71% of the goals. Without, they scored 50%. That's a bigger gap than anyone. #Flames pic.twitter.com/uzIzcoJEYn
Most points in a season by a player who headed into unrestricted free agency, since 1995— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) July 13, 2022
Joe Sakic (2000-01) 118
Johnny Gaudreau (2021-22) 115
Wayne Gretzky (1995-96) 102
In addition to leading the league in even-strength points (90), the new Blue Jacket finished fourth in the Hart Trophy discussion and added 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in the playoffs. Both his points and assists led the Flames during the postseason.
Johnny Gaudreau 21-22 regular season at 5v5:— Coby Maeir (@CobyMaeir) July 14, 2022
Among all skaters:
G: 26 (T-4th)
1A: 37 (1st)
A: 46 (1st)
P: 72 (1st)
GF: 96 (1st)
xGF: 65.11 (4th)
SF: 729 (5th)
SCF: 729 (5th)
HDCF: 281 (11th)
HDGF: 44 (7th)#CBJ
Data via @NatStatTrick
As the elite winger comes off his best season to date, we get to look forward to the many highlights—and wins—on the ice. So far, only three days into free agency, it's been a huge win off it.