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Johnny Gaudreau

The star forward, coming off a career-high 115 points, made a stunning decision to sign a 7-year pact with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Johnny Gaudreau Signs 7-Year, $68.25 Million Contract In Columbus

The star forward, coming off a career-high 115 points, made a stunning decision to sign a 7-year pact with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

Johnny Gaudreau Signs 7-Year, $68.25 Million Contract With Columbus

After a bit longer of wait than many expected, the NHL’s top free agent of 2022 is off the board. And he’s going where almost no one expected him to go.

No, Gaudreau isn’t signing with his hometown Philadelphia Flyers. He isn’t going to the next closest team, the New Jersey Devils, to further their outstanding young core and give the Devils the biggest free agent signing for the second straight year (joining another ex-Flame in Dougie Hamilton at that). He isn’t even going to a New York Islanders team that, while coming off a down year, had made the third round of the playoffs each of the prior two seasons. No, one of the league’s biggest stars is heading to one of its smallest markets. Three years after having their team’s state drastically set back when Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Sergei Bobrovsky all left for greener pastures and more green bills in the summer of 2019, the Blue Jackets haven’t just made their biggest UFA signing in franchise history. They’ve made one of the biggest in NHL history, period.

The deal caps off a wild first day of free agency, which to this point has seen 132 signings with a combined 2022-23 cap hit of over $242 million and nearly $850 million shelled out over the durations of the contracts that became official today. Gaudreau’s, though, is obviously the biggest. Only three players — John Tavares ($11 million), Panarin ($11,642,857), and Bobrovsky ($10 million) — have signed for more money per year as unrestricted free agents than Gaudreau’s deal. What’s crazier is that he easily could have made more.

And perhaps even crazier — he arguably should have made more.

Suddenly, the small market Blue Jackets are at the center of the league’s biggest story. There were plenty of people expecting Columbus to begin a rebuild after the team finished fourth-worst in 2020-21. The team was on the older side with plenty of big contracts, Seth Jones nearing UFA status, and fired their head coach. The seemingly inevitable regression from their aforementioned three stars leaving had hit, just a year later than most people expected. Now, after a surprisingly respectable 2021-22 season, Columbus has replenished their prospect pool a bit and still had a solid bit of talent even when they woke up this morning. Oh, and they also now have one of the game’s most dynamic talents. Gaudreau is an incredibly dynamic talent coming off a superstar regular season and stellar playoff performance. And the Blue Jackets got him at a discount.

Not since Columbus upset the Lightning in Round 1 of the 2019 playoffs have the Blue Jackets had a happier moment. Yes, there are things to be sorted out. Gaudreau’s contract leaves Columbus with just $3.4 million in cap space, and they still have an RFA with a $7.5 million qualifying offer to take care of (plus a couple of other, less expensive RFAs in Emil Bemström and Nick Blankenburg). Maybe this move means the end of Patrik Laine in Columbus. But if the Blue Jackets play their cards right, it probably shouldn’t. Columbus needs more high-end talent, not less, if they want to become a legitimate foe in the Eastern Conference. And the Gaudreau contract signals a sudden shift in that direction.

It’s safe to say this isn’t the way Gaudreau imagined things going when he informed the Flames he wouldn’t be re-signing there last night. Gaudreau will definitely make the Blue Jackets better. But will he make them better enough? Columbus finished last season with a mediocre 81 points. And while they were also pedestrian on offense, their biggest problem was keeping the puck out of the net. Gaudreau isn’t a defensive liability, but he’s not going to be winning the Selke anytime soon in all likelihood.

So no, this probably isn’t what Gaudreau had in mind. Does this make him one of the losers of free agency? Maybe. If nothing else, it’s certainly a strange if not confounding outcome. But he does join a now much more intriguing Blue Jackets team with incredible depth at the wing and two gaudy center prospects in Cole Sillinger and Kent Johnson. Elvis Merzlikins is just two years removed from receiving Vezina votes and had to play last season and was solid despite a poor defense and the tragic memory of his teammate, fellow Latvian, and friend Matiss Kivlenieks passing away in front of him in July 2021. He’s closer to his hometown of Salem, NJ, although probably not close enough to make a significant difference. And maybe with taxes and what not the financial difference isn’t as big as it seems.

In the short term, Gaudreau would probably prefer things to be different. Whether he would’ve just stayed in Calgary if he knew this contract in Columbus was the alternative will probably be forever unknown. What we will know, soon, is what the Johnny Gaudreau era in Columbus looks like. The Blue Jackets took their shot at Johnny Hockey. And he has given them a shot to do special things over the next seven years. That, and not the emotions or the money left on the table, will determine whether Gaudreau ultimately regrets this decision or not.

Make sure to read more of our coverage on some of the biggest moves of day one of free agency.

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