Blue Jackets Signing Johnny Gaudreau Takes Stacked Metro Division to New Level

Abbey MastraccoJuly 14, 2022

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 22: The cannon goes off after Jack Roslovic #96 of the Columbus Blue Jackets scores a goal against the Ottawa Senators during the first period at Nationwide Arena on April 22, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)
Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

That explosion you heard around 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday night was bombshell news being dropped: Johnny Gaudreau was going to the Columbus Blue Jackets. It's fitting for a team that sets off a literal cannon every time a goal is scored in their home barn.

Get ready for a lot of fireworks as the explosive winger has decided to sign with the rebuilding franchise. In a move that no one could have seen coming, the former Calgary Flames forward opted against returning home to the east coast and instead signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract ($9.75 million AAV) in Columbus.

Gaudreau, whose 115 points were tied for second in the league last season, could be leaving upwards of $15 million on the table to sign with a team that seemingly came out of left field. For the last few months, the narrative had been that Gaudreau wanted to play for a team closer to his native New Jersey.

He seemed destined for the Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, or even the New York Islanders, but another Metropolitan Division team came flying in off the top rope to steal the 28-year-old and stun the hockey world.

It's created a ripple effect throughout the division. The addition of Gaudreau makes the Metro a murderer's row of sorts. Every team has a legitimate chance of contending for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot except the Flyers and maybe the Devils, though that could change.

New Jersey has made it known that it intends to take a step forward to try and get over the hump of its extended rebuild. The failed pursuit of Gaudreau means that general manager Tom Fitzgerald had to go to Plan B.

Fitzgerald was able to obtain a free-agent forward late Wednesday night after reportedly striking an agreement with former Lightning winger Ondrej Palat on a five-year deal. The trade market is also a place to explore for the Devils, with Vladimir Tarasenko a name to keep an eye on. Targeting an elite, high-priced free agent like Gaudreau just one year after signing defenseman Dougie Hamilton to a seven-year contract shows the aspiration to contend again and it remains to be seen if New Jersey is done after the Palat signing.

But the Blue Jackets seem to think they can contend again as well.

The run never came to fruition, and Kekalainen was forced to do some tearing down of sorts in order to retool. He fired coach John Tortorella and loaded up on draft picks. The Blue Jackets were not expected to make much noise in a tough division for a few more years, but now there is a chance they can re-sign Laine, which makes the expectations sky-high.

The run never came to fruition and Kekalainen was forced to do some tearing down of sorts in order to retool. He fired coach John Tortorella and loaded up on draft picks. The Blue Jackets were not expected to make much noise in a tough division for a few more years, but now there is a chance they can re-sign Laine, which makes the expectations sky-high.

COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 11: Columbus Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen addresses members of the media during Media Day at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, OH on September 11, 2019. (Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Coincidentally, that's about the same height of the hill they'll have to climb in the division. Every single playoff team in the Metro addressed a glaring weakness.

The New York Rangers reached the Eastern Conference Final just last month, and while there was some roster turnover following the season, most of the top guys are locked up long-term. They also signed center Vincent Trocheck on Wednesday to replace Ryan Strome on the second line and goalie Jaroslav Halak, giving them a quality veteran backup to reigning Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin.

The Pittsburgh Penguins didn't make any major acquisitions Wednesday, but they did re-sign center Evgeni Malkin, forward Rickard Rakell and defenseman Kris Letang. The Penguins showed that they are still a top team in the league and that Sidney Crosby is still a top player in an intense first-round showdown with the Rangers a few months ago. Had they not been down to their third-string goalie, they might have been able to eliminate New York.

The reigning division winners, the Carolina Hurricanes, added 2017 Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns. He might be 37, but he still generates shots and moves the puck, and the Canes needed a right-shot puck-mover after dealing Tony DeAngelo to the Flyers last week during the NHL draft in Montreal.

JFresh @JFreshHockey

Brent Burns, reportedly traded to CAR, is a veteran puck-moving defenceman who played the most minutes in the NHL in 2021-22. Loves to shoot the puck but has been way less trigger-happy in the past few seasons. Something tells me he'll be chucking pucks again. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsGoCanes?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LetsGoCanes</a> <a href="https://t.co/MJFGL9tc3u">pic.twitter.com/MJFGL9tc3u</a>

The club also took advantage of the Vegas Golden Knights' cap situation by acquiring Max Pacioretty in a trade for future considerations and signed speedy forward Ondrej Kase as a depth move, bringing in a total of five players on Wednesday.

The Washington Capitals also improved their Achilles' heel by signing goalie Darcy Kuemper, who is fresh off of a Stanley Cup win.

The Islanders' direction seems unclear, but general manager Lou Lamoriello often operates in secrecy, with few leaks and even fewer public comments.

That leaves the Flyers on an island by themselves. It might be a long season in Philly.

Philadelphia GM Chuck Fletcher said the Flyers couldn't make anything work with Gaudreau because of cap space. It's a problem of Fletcher's own creation, as he's been building the team since 2018, and fans have a right to be upset about this whiff.

The reason why Flyers fans are up in arms—and Blue Jackets fans are ecstatic—is that Gaudreau is a franchise-changer. As a speedy, playmaking winger, he's among the best passers in the league and has tremendous vision and instincts. All of this is in addition to his scorer's touch. He just completed a monster season, scoring 40 goals and putting up 115 points.

His size (5'9") has been a liability at times, so any team will need strength and size on the ice with him, but that's not exactly a problem, especially considering the Blue Jackets also signed 6'4" defenseman Erik Gudbranson on Wednesday.

CALGARY, AB - MAY 15: Johnny Gaudreau #13 of the Calgary Flames speaks to media after the Flames defeated the Dallas Stars during the overtime period of Game Seven of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome on May 15, 2022 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Flames defeated the Stars 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Derek Leung/Getty Images

The biggest problem facing Columbus now is Laine's contract. He's a restricted free agent in need of a raise. His previous salary was $7.5 million, and the Blue Jackets only have a little more than $3 million in cap space.

But even with Laine, this team might not be formidable enough to fight off all of the competition in the Metro. Goalie Elvis Merzlikins has not looked as strong as he did during his rookie campaign and the Jackets failed to trade his backup, Joonas Korpisalo. Columbus' .897 save percentage was ranked 24th last season.

The power-play success rate was only 24th in the league. There were plenty of growing pains in head coach Brad Larsen's first season, but there were bright spots too—namely, the growth of top prospects Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger. This may not be the year we see Columbus become serious contenders, but if they take strides and play in meaningful games down the stretch, it shouldn't be considered a failed year.

It's why the signing of Gaudreau is so fascinating. You don't bring in a player like Gaudreau just to make strides—you bring him in to win. It won't be easy in the Metropolitan Division, but the rest of the teams have just been put on notice.