Johnny Gaudreau stunned the hockey world on Wednesday night by foregoing expectations and deciding to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Heading into free agency, it was expected that the Salem, N.J., native was going to sign close to home, with the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders the front-runners to land his services.
But after he put pen to paper on his seven-year, $68.25-million contract, there was overwhelming confusion and amazement that one of the best wingers in the game opted to commit his future to a franchise that is more than 500 miles away from home and has one playoff series victory in its 21-year history.
For Gaudreau, however, the answer was pretty simple: he just wants to have fun.
“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's Aaron Portzline. “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I said to myself then, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.’”
One key part of Nationwide Arena, and a feature that has been fully embraced by the Blue Jackets and their fan base, is a giant Civil War-era cannon that goes off every time the home team scores. Gaudreau has a complicated past with the cannon, but fortunately he believes he can get over his fear.
Johnny Gaudreau is known to have beef with the Cannon in Columbus. pic.twitter.com/siwco7DqIR
— rob (@IvanIvanlvan) July 13, 2022
“That cannon kind of scares me a little bit, and I’ve had a run-in with that cannon a couple of times,” Gaudreau said. “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.”
Beyond the environment, fans and the now-beloved cannon, Gaudreau said he was enticed to play with some familiar faces in the Columbus locker room.
“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 said.
While professional sports teams in Ohio have historically not been looked at as an appealing destination for star players, Gaudreau’s signing might change the tides ever so slightly. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen certainly wants to make it that way, specifically for his team.
“I think we can finally get rid of the bull**** 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.”
Well, hopefully Kekalainen’s skin will be rash-free for the next seven years, since Columbus has put themselves on the map as an up-and-coming team on the brink of success. Last season, the Blue Jackets finished 19 points out of a playoff spot with a 37-38-7 record, but will certainly now be a hip dark horse playoff pick with Gaudreau in the fold.
They still have some work to do this offseason. The Blue Jackets have a shade over $3 million in cap space and still have to sign restricted free agent winger Patrik Laine to a new contract, so more moves will need to be made. But that's a small price to pay to lock in one of the game's top players.
“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 Laine 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.”
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