It's easy to look at Columbus' roster and declare an identity crisis.
They weren't remotely competitive last season. Then, they signed 30-year-old bruiser Erik Gudbranson to a four-year deal worth $4 million, easily making it one of the strangest signings of the year.
So, if you asked anyone where they thought Johnny Gaudreau was headed 24 hours before the kickoff to NHL free agency, Columbus probably wasn't high on the list. At all.
But after breaking the hockey world with a seven-year, $9.75-million AAV deal just after 7:00 PM ET on Wednesday, GM Jarmo Kekäläinen sent a message to the rest of the league: they're not messing around.
But, of course, this comes years after losing Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene all in one summer, and Seth Jones just last year. They've had a tough time keeping their star players around. Of those players, though, only Bobrovsky actually signed via free agency, and he played his best hockey by a mile in Columbus. Ultimately, the team wasn't willing to spend the $10 million it cost to keep him around, which, in a way, might have a good thing based on his so-so play in the years since.
In Gaudreau's case, he left around $15 million on the floor by b not signing with Calgary, who was prepared to go eight years and with a higher salary. That's not something any player can take lightly, and while the decision to not return to Calgary was family related, Gaudreau's willingness to take on less money to play for a Blue Jackets team with just one playoff series victory ever shows belief in what they're doing.
This wasn't about chasing more money. And that's refreshing.
The Blue Jackets are a bit loaded on the left side already with Patrik Laine and Jakub Voracek already, so the team will need to do a bit of shuffling around. Zoning in on Laine specifically, he's an RFA this summer, and the Blue Jackets have expressed a desire in signing him long-term. Does Gaudreau's arrival make that easier now? They've still got to make the money work with around $3-million in cap space, but that has to be a priority.
With Johnson, one of the team's prime young guns, there's hope he becomes a nice piece of the puzzle moving forward. At 19, Johnson played in the World Junior Championship, Winter Olympic Games, men's World Championship, had a great run with the University of Michigan and then made some noise with the Blue Jackets to close out the season. Is he the No. 1 center the Blue Jackets need?
Add in Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov and future defenders David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk, and the Blue Jackets have a good crop of up-and-comers. But, with any young core, nothing is certain. Bringing in Gaudreau – a 100-point scorer coming off of a fourth-place spot in the Hart Trophy fight – gives the team more credibility.
Columbus has never been a hot destination for free agents, but Gaudreau's arrival could potentially spark something. He's the most established incoming UFA in team history, and with some good young players in the pipeline, maybe some other key names over the next five-plus years see the Blue Jackets as a team worth investing their time in.
You have to assume Kekäläinen assured Gaudreau that they'd be working to make the Blue Jackets a contender. Because unlike other top free agents like Nazem Kadri, Claude Giroux or John Klingberg, Gaudreau has never had a chance to play in the Stanley Cup final. Gaudreau will be 35 when the deal ends, and who knows where his game will be at that point.
It's all a work in progress in Columbus, and the uncertain future of Laine won't make it any less nerve-wracking for the Blue Jackets. But the signing of Gaudreau definitely doesn't hurt, and as the team attempts to build a brighter future, this big splash could be just the start.