Raise your hand if you saw Johnny Gaudreau signing with the Blue Jackets this summer. Okay, now put your hands down and quit lying. One of the biggest free agency surprises in NHL history happened yesterday, with Gaudreau agreeing to a 7 year, $68.25m contract to join the Columbus Blue Jackets. What made him choose Columbus? Good management, a family-friendly, smaller market environment? A young up and coming team? Maybe all of the above … or maybe it’s just simply karma, coming back around.
July 1st, 2019. A day that will live in infamy.
To Blue Jackets fans, this was the darkest day in their 22 year history. GM Jarmo Kekalainen finally built a competitive team and won their first playoff series that spring. They had a young lineup that looked like it was on the rise, built around super-talented winger Artemi Panarin. But the summer brought implosion. Gone were Panarin, star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, and deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. We all saw the comments: “Nobody wants to play in Columbus”, “Trash organization”; “It’s so and so’s fault”.
Things only got worse, and everyone kept dumping on our team. Top line center Pierre-Luc Dubois refused to sign long-term and literally quit on the team. Seth Jones informed the team in the summer of 2021 that he, also, would not be sticking around. They lost an entire top line, an elite defenseman, and other key pieces in just two years. So what exactly changed over the course of the last 12 months, to cause 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 long-term, which was a turning point on its own. He then traded for exciting veteran winger Jakub Voracek, refreshing the team’s attack. He got a huge return for Jones, jumpstarting the rebuild – and then made the most of his assets. He drafted extremely well, and suddenly the Blue Jackets, stale and mundane, had new life. The roster was fresh and scored more goals in 2021-22, than they ever had in any prior season. The prospect pool went from boring, to loaded with exciting young talent at nearly every position.
The tired storyline that Columbus is not a hockey town, or a place where players want to play, is ridiculous and unfair. That’s the only way to put it. The run of players leaving was for a variety of reasons, and most had nothing to do with Columbus. Duchene left because his preferred destination is Nashville. Panarin left because he wanted the bright lights of New York, and a fancy garage (there aren’t any in Central Ohio). Bobrovsky? Well, every old guy wants to retire by the beach.
We’ll never know what happened with Jones or Dubois, but the leadership turnover last summer might have something to do with their departure; this year’s group seemed to gel and get along great. I’m not bitter about the guys that left, that’s their decision. In the end, it’s their loss … do you think Seth Jones would ask to go to Chicago, knowing how this year is panning out? Would Dubois be asking for a trade now, if he were still here and had the chance to play with Gaudreau on his flank?
Meanwhile, management for the Blue Jackets just kept plugging away and adding pieces, while other teams are finding out what we knew: the reason it was stagnant in Columbus, is because these players didn’t want to be here. The players that were here, in my opinion, were likely the reason things went south.
That’s no fault of the Blue Jacket management, or the city of Columbus. In fact, for a player in his prime such as Gaudreau, this is the perfect destination. This is now a stacked young team that is built to be competitive for years to come. He will have one of the premier goal scorers in the world to feed passes to in Patrik Laine (assuming his deal gets done). Read: Laine contract must make sense.
Columbus is a vibrant, growing city; a great place to raise a family with a slower pace than a lot of larger NHL markets. He will be the hot ticket in town; there aren’t NFL teams or NBA teams to compete with. The media won’t rip him apart if he makes a minor mistake. In fact, if he plays out the duration of this contract in Columbus, he will probably see his jersey in the rafters some day. This is a place where he can make an impact; where the media will treat him kindly (looking at you, Canadian hockey writers), and a place where he has a chance to win.
Lastly, he gets into the eastern time zone, where he’s just a quick flight away from his family … and play with life-long 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, up and coming team, and an easier place to do what he does best: play hockey.
Gaudreau’s 609 points in 602 career games are sixth-most since he entered the NHL in 2014. He finished tied for second in the NHL in scoring, with 115 points this past season. He’s a world class talent, who immediately pushes the Blue Jacket rebuild well ahead. They are a more formidable, exciting team, whose rebuild was just accelerated by several years.
Sure, they still need a center. Maybe Kent Johnson, Cole Sillinger, or even Alex Texier can step into a top-six role. They’ll also need some experience, and probably still need to get better defensively. But, a corner has been turned and they now have several talented, prime aged players that want to play and win here.
Finally, 22 years into our existence, we can kick aside the stigma that Columbus isn’t a hockey market. July 13, 2022, will go down as one of the biggest turning points in franchise history. Johnny Blue Jacket chose Columbus.