Raise your hand if you saw Johnny Gaudreau sign with the Blue Jackets this summer. Okay, now put your hands down and stop lying. One of the biggest free agency surprises in NHL history happened yesterday, when Gaudreau agreed to a 7-year, $68.25 million contract to join the Columbus Blue Jackets. What prompted him to choose Columbus? Good management, family and smaller market environment? A young and rising team? Maybe all of the above…or maybe it’s just karma coming back.
July 1, 2019. A day that will live in infamy.
For Blue Jackets fans, it was the darkest day in their 22-year history. GM Jarmo Kekalainen finally built a competitive team and won his first playoff series that spring. They had a young roster that looked to be on the rise, built around super-talented winger Artemi Panarin. But the summer brought the implosion. Gone are Panarin, star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. We’ve all seen the comments: “No one wants to play in Columbus”, “Garbage organization”; “It’s so-and-so’s fault.”
Things only got worse and everyone kept getting rid of our team. Top center Pierre-Luc Dubois refused to sign long-term and literally left the team. Seth Jones informed the team in the summer of 2021 that he would not be staying either. They’ve lost an entire top line, elite defender and other key elements in just two years. So what exactly has changed in the last 12 months for star free agent Johnny Gaudreau to come to Columbus?
A variety of reasons. Kekalainen continued to do what he does best. He signed Zach Werenski on a long-term basis, which was a turning point in itself. He then traded for exciting veteran winger Jakub Voracek, refreshing the team’s offense. He got a huge comeback for Jones, kicking off the rebuild – and then made the most of his assets. He drafted extremely well and suddenly the Blue Jackets, stale and unremarkable, had new life. The roster was fresh and scored more goals in 2021-22 than they ever had in a previous season. The prospect pool has grown from boring to loaded with exciting young talent in almost every position.
The tired story that Columbus isn’t a hockey town, or a place where players want to play, is ridiculous and unfair. It’s the only way to tell. The string of player departures was due to a variety of reasons, and most had nothing to do with Columbus. Duchene left because his favorite destination is Nashville. Panarin left because he wanted the bright lights of New York and a fancy garage (there are none in central Ohio). Bobrovsky? Well, every old man wants to retire to the beach.
We’ll never know what happened with Jones or Dubois, but the change in management last summer might have something to do with their departure; this year’s band seemed to gel and get along just fine. I’m not bitter for the guys who left, it’s their decision. In the end, it’s their downfall… do you think Seth Jones would ask to go to Chicago, knowing how this year is going? Would Dubois ask for a trade now, if he was still around and had the chance to play with Gaudreau on his flank?
All the while, Blue Jackets management has been scrambling and adding pieces, while other teams are figuring out what we knew: The reason it was stagnant in Columbus is because that these players didn’t want to be here. The players who were here, in my opinion, were probably the reason things went wrong.
It’s not the fault of the management of the Blue Jackets or the city of Columbus. In fact, for a player in his prime like Gaudreau, it’s the perfect destination. It is now a young stacked team that is built to be competitive for years to come. He will have one of the best goalscorers in the world to pass Patrik Laine through (assuming his deal goes through). Read: The Laine contract must make sense.
Columbus is a dynamic and growing city. a great place to raise a family with a slower pace than many big NHL markets. He will be the hot ticket in town; there are no NFL or NBA teams to compete against. The media won’t rip it if he makes one small mistake. In fact, if he plays the length of that contract at Columbus, he’ll probably see his jersey in the rafters one day. It’s a place where he can have an impact; where the media will treat it kindly (looking at you, Canadian hockey writers), and a place where he has a chance of winning.
Finally, he enters the Eastern Time Zone, where he’s just a quick flight away from his family… and plays with lifelong friend Eric Robinson. When you put all of these reasons together, Columbus was an obvious choice. He has a great place to raise his family; a great young and up-and-coming team, and an easier place to do what they do best: play hockey.
Gaudreau’s 609 points in 602 career games is sixth most since entering the NHL in 2014. He finished tied for second in NHL scoring with 115 points last season. He’s a world-class talent, which immediately pushes Blue Jacket’s rebuild far forward. It is a more formidable, more exciting team, whose reconstruction has just been accelerated by several years.
Of course, they still need a center. Maybe Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger or even Alex Texier can get into the top six. They will also need experience and will probably still need to improve defensively. But a turn has been made and they now have several talented, mature players who want to play and win here.
Finally, after 22 years of existence, we can put aside the stigma that Columbus is not a hockey market. July 13, 2022 will go down as one of the biggest turning points in franchise history. Johnny Blue Jacket chose Columbus.