COLUMBUS, Ohio — It will go down as one of the most memorable days in franchise history, the moment when the Blue Jackets not only landed the biggest name in this year’s free agent crop but also perhaps the moment when the rest of the NHL began to see the city in a different light.
Johnny Gaudreau had his pick among NHL clubs, from major metropolitan markets to hockey-crazed Canadian cities. The highly skilled left winger, coming off a 115-point season, could have had a bigger payday by staying with the only NHL club he’s ever known, the Calgary Flames.
But in a move that stunned hockey fans everywhere — especially those in central Ohio — Gaudreau, 28, chose the Blue Jackets to spend the prime of his career, signing a seven-year, $68.25 million contract with Columbus on Wednesday. The deal will pay 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 in the final three years.
Why did Gaudreau pick Columbus? How did the Blue Jackets, who’ve never advanced 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 the experiences he’s had playing in Nationwide Arena and on conversations he’s had with current and former Blue Jackets, who raved about it.
“I’d never been to Columbus before until I made it to the NHL, so when I started playing there I didn’t know what I was walking into, and I was just … ‘Wow!’” Gaudreau told The Athletic by phone late Wednesday. “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I said to myself then, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.’
“But it was more than that. I played in the (world championships) with Zach Werenski. I’ve known Eric Robinson for like 15-20 years. And some former guys, like Cam Atkinson and Dalton Prout … those guys were just like, ‘You’re going to absolutely love the place.’”
Gaudreau joked that his contentious relationship with the Nationwide Arena cannon, which blasts each time the Blue Jackets score, has already undergone a change of heart.
“That cannon kind of scares me a little bit, and I’ve had a run-in with that cannon a couple of times,” said Gaudreau, who officially will be introduced in a news conference Thursday. “I used to not want to hear it. Now I want to hear it all the time.
“Hopefully we’ll get that thing really blasting this season.”
The move has the potential to vault the Blue Jackets back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference after a two-year hiatus. (Yes, GM Jarmo Kekalainen plans to sign and keep restricted free agent Patrik Laine, although $5 million worth of moves will be necessary to get under the NHL’s salary cap.)
Just as important, perhaps, is what this means to the franchise off the ice. After sweeping Tampa Bay in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, the Blue Jackets have lost significant talent and gained a reputation — perhaps unfairly — for not being an attractive place to play.
Kekalainen started his conversation with The Athletic by stressing 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 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.”
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 conversations with veteran defenseman Alex Pietrangelo before he signed with Vegas.
Their initial contact with Gaudreau’s agent, Lewis Gross, was expected to play out in a similar fashion. The Blue Jackets had Gaudreau at the top of their wish list, and they extended an offer shortly after the window opened at noon Eastern.
Many expected Gaudreau to sign with a club close to his family home in New Jersey. Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and New Jersey were seen as favorites. But by mid-afternoon, the Blue Jackets were alerted that they were very much in the running.
Kekalainen met with the media around 3 pm to discuss the signing of defenseman Erik Gudbranson. It was sometime after that gathering that talks with Gaudreau and the Blue Jackets got serious.
“It kind of came out of the blue,” Kekalainen said. “Like, are you serious about this?
“Everybody’s talking about him being one of the biggest fish on the market. We always do our list and at the appropriate time we contact the people on the top of our list, but to hear back that, yeah, they’re one of the teams they want to come to…”
Calgary reportedly had offered eight years at $10.5 million per season, but Gaudreau decided early on that he wasn’t going back to the Flames. The Flyers, long expected to be the destination, didn’t make an offer, GM Chuck Fletcher told reporters, because it would have prompted other trades by Philadelphia.
New Jersey offered seven years and more than $9 million per season, per The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun.
The move was a stunner, even by free agency’s standards.
“This guy wanted to come here,” Kekalainen said. “When you get a player like this, this caliber, you have to make a move and that’s basically what we did.
“He’s obviously a superstar. It’s a must-have when a guy like that tells you he wants to come here.”
Gaudreau said he was blissfully unaware of the hockey world’s response to his signing. He hadn’t been on Twitter all day, he said.
“It’s all outside noise to me,” Gaudreau said. “I’m super excited about where I’m at. I think it was a great decision for me and my wife and we’re just over the moon right now. Super excited.”
Gaudreau’s wife, Meredith, is a pediatric nurse. She’s expecting the couple’s first child in late September.
“Hopefully the boys will let the new guy off for a couple of hours so I can witness that in person,” Gaudreau joked.
The Blue Jackets had too many forwards and a glut of wingers before this signing. A week ago, Kekalainen needed to unload some forwards to clear space for his young talent to get a proper opportunity in the lineup.
Now, he’ll need to move multiple forwards to get under the NHL’s $82.5 million salary cap. If you project an $8.5 million contract for Laine, the Blue Jackets will be at least $4 million over the cap. But they’ll need more than that to allow for injuries as the season moved along.
“We thought about it long and hard,” Kekalainen said. “We’re confident we can make it all work. This doesn’t change our position on Wool at all. We’re going to approach (negotiations with Laine) like it’s a work in progress, but we have plans to keep ’em both.”
It’s somebody else who will have to move. Oliver Bjorkstrand? Gustav Nyquist?
The Blue Jackets haven’t had even minor cap issues since the 2019 season, but it’s a small price to pay for adding 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 entire NHL with a plus-64 rating.
Since Gaudreau became a regular in 2014-15, he has 608 points, trailing only McDavid (697), Patrick Kane (687), Sidney Crosby (640), Leon Draisaitl (616) and Brad Marchand (609) in that span.
Gaudreau has played mostly left wing, but he can play on both sides of center. The Blue Jackets could use him with Laine or Jakub Voracek on his off wing.
“He fits anywhere, and he’ll make everybody around him better,” Kekalainen said. “That’s how good he is.
“He had 115 points last year. Look at our power play now. Look at how we can drive the play up the ice, and now we have a guy again who can drive the play like a center, but do it from the wing.”
The Blue Jackets organization has only had a few opportunities to bask in glory quite like the Gaudreau signing created on Wednesday.
There was June 22, 2002, the day they drafted Rick Nash No. 1 overall; April 8, 2009, the first time they clinched a playoff berth; and April 16, 2019, the night they vanquished Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
Add another line — July 13, 2022: The day Johnny Hockey picked Columbus.
(Top photo of Johnny Gaudreau: Sergei Belski/USA Today)