Coming off the most productive year of his career, winger Johnny Gaudreau could have resigned with the Calgary Flames, or taken his pick of major cities and Stanley Cup contenders in free agency. Instead, he chose to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday, stunning the hockey world in the process.

Johnny Gaudreau Columbus Blue Jackets
Johnny Gaudreau stunned the hockey world by signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. (Image: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports)

The Blue Jackets signed Gaudreau to a seven-year, $68.25 million contract in the most surprising move of the NHL’s first day of offseason free agency.

Gaudreau lauds Columbus as ‘fun place to play’

Fans and pundits struggled to find a reason why Gaudreau would choose Columbus. Calgary won the Pacific Division last season, reaching the second round of the playoffs. The Blue Jackets last reached the playoffs in the 2019-2020 season. Gaudreau hails from New Jersey, raising speculation that he could land with the Devils, the Philadelphia Flyers, or the New York Islanders. Columbus isn’t exactly a hockey hotbed.

Yet Gaudreau says that he considered Columbus one of his top choices as soon as he determined he would test the free agent waters.

“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,” Guadreau told The Athletic. “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I said to myself the, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.”

Gaudreau added that players he has known for years told him he would love Columbus. That was apparently enough to convince the biggest free agent on the board to sign in the most unlikely of destinations.

Guadreau let the NHL in plus/minus last season at +64, scoring 40 goals and 75 assists – career highs in all three categories. Overall, he has scored 609 points in 602 games over nine seasons, all with Calgary.

Signing could change perception of beleaguered franchise

Adding Guadreau won’t instantly turn Columbus into a Stanley Cup contender, and may not even be enough for the team to grab a playoff spot. FanDuel Sportsbook now lists the Blue Jackets as a +7500 pick to win the Stanley Cup next year, still the longest odds of any Eastern Conference team.

Yet the Columbus front office says this could be a turning point for the franchise.  They envision not only better on-ice play, but perhaps a change in the reputation of the city as a destination for future free agents.

“I get a rash every time I hear the negative comments about Columbus, and it’s so unfair because we have a great organization, we have a great city,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told ESPN. “Sometimes players leave, and people think they left but the reality is that we didn’t even offer a contract. We have a great organization. We have a good team, and we’re going to keep getting better.”

FanDuel rates Columbus as a +3700 pick to win the Eastern Conference next season, as well as a +4500 pick to top the Metropolitan Division.