Johnny Gaudreau had the Columbus Blue Jackets at the top of his wish list when he became an unrestricted free agent Wednesday.
All the Blue Jackets had to do was come up with a contract that would work for both sides, and he would sign it.
Seven years and $68.25 million ($9.75 million average annual value) did the trick.
Gaudreau put pen to paper Wednesday night and was introduced to the Columbus community in a press conference at Nationwide Arena on Thursday afternoon.
“I wanted to come here,” Gaudreau said. “This was always a place circled on my list.”
The 28-year-old forward led the Calgary Flames and was tied for second in the NHL last season with 115 points (40 goals, 75 assists) in 82 regular-season games. He led the NHL with a plus-64 rating and set NHL career highs in goals, assists, points, game-winning goals (nine) and shots on goal (262).
Gaudreau also led the Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 12 games.
The Flames made Gaudreau an eight-year contract offer reportedly worth more annually than he got from the Blue Jackets. But he told Flames general manager Brad Treliving on Tuesday night that he was not going to sign with them.
Once he made that decision, Gaudreau and his wife, Meredith, pivoted to the Eastern Conference so he could play closer to where he grew up in South Jersey. He said it was always a dream of his to play for an east-coast team.
They decided Columbus, even though it’s not near the coast, was close enough.
“I only got to play here once a year and it was from the hotel back to the rink and then back to the hotel and I had never been to Columbus before that,” Gaudreau said. “But throughout the summer, I did my homework on places that I thought were good for me, talked to some former players. After every time I talked to a different person about this city, it seemed like the person was more excited than the last person I was talking to. It sounded like a perfect spot for us.”
The Blue Jackets’ young core was also part of his decision.
“I think there’s a lot of potential,” Gaudreau said. “They’ve got good players on this team. I’ve heard a lot of great things. They’re a close-knit group. That’s who you want to play with, guys who get along in the locker room and love coming to the rink and working every single day. It’s just a healthy environment to be around.”
The Blue Jackets did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons, missing by 19 points last season and 16 in 2020-21.
But that didn’t matter to Gaudreau.
“I’m so excited, I think we have a good group here,” he said. “I didn’t come to Columbus to check out the views. I came here to win hockey games.”
[RELATED: 2022 NHL Free Agent Tracker]
Gaudreau said making the decision to leave Calgary was hard, but he felt it was the right thing to do for he and Meredith, who is pregnant and expecting the couple’s first child in September.
“It went right down to probably 11 o’clock the night before free agency where I decided I wasn’t going to go back,” Gaudreau said. “It was difficult, but it was the best for us. We were super excited to sign here in Columbus. They were one of the teams we were really interested in and when they called, we had all smiles.”
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen said it was unanimous in the Blue Jackets’ front office that they had to make it work with Gaudreau because of the interest he expressed in them.
“We all agreed that we just can’t pass on an opportunity like this with a player of his caliber wanting to come here,” Kekalainen said. “Obviously, he was wanted by a number of teams. We had watched him — I don’t know how many times — with our scouting staff and continued talks with his agent and it came through fairly quickly after we realized that we both wanted this. There was a deal to be made and we signed it.”
Gaudreau could find himself playing on the same line as Patrik Laine, who is a restricted free agent. Kekalainen said they expect to get Laine under contract.
The options at center include Boone Jenner, Cole Sillinger, Jack Roslovic and potentially Kent Johnson, the No. 5 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, who played nine games and had three assists last season.
Johnson gave No. 13 to Gaudreau, the number he had throughout his eight seasons in Calgary.
Johnson had been wearing No. 13 because Gaudreau was his idol growing up.
“Talking to everyone right after I signed and I was like, ‘I don’t need 13, he can have 13’. I feel bad. I don’t want to take his number. I’ll get a fresh new start,'” Gaudreau said. “I’m going to have to take him out to a couple dinners. It was very nice for him to do that. He didn’t have to. It shows what you’re surrounded by here, guys that are willing to do those little things and not expect anything in return.”
Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said he has not yet talked to Gaudreau about where he might fit in the lineup, players he could play with, the systems Columbus plays or anything of the sort.
Those conversations will happen, but for now the coach is just happy Gaudreau wanted to be a part of what they’re doing in Columbus.
“He chose to come here,” Larsen said. “He chose us, this organization, this city to grow his family coming really coming into the prime of his career. It’s a big statement.”
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