Blackmail? Under-the-table bribery? Mind-control rays beamed into Alberta from the American heartland? These fantastical ideas truly felt like the most logical explanations when the news broke that the Columbus Blue Jackets had landed the biggest prize of the NHL free-agent market—former Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau—without even needing to overpay.
To understand the magnitude of this shock, one must understand first both the relevance of Gaudreau and then the equal and opposite irrelevance of Columbus. “Johnny Hockey,” as he’s been called since before he came into the league in 2014, has been a cornerstone of the Flames for the better part of a decade. He started hot with a 64-point rookie year and then crested in 2018–19 with 36 goals and 63 assists as the Flames won their first division title since 2006. And after a dip in the next two seasons, he came roaring back with a dominant 40-goal, 115-point year while playing every game for a revitalized franchise (though they, as usual, stalled out in the playoffs). The 28-year-old Gaudreau is famously undersized but makes up for his lack of physical gifts with his skill and creativity with the puck, as well as a growing capability on defense. Few could afford him, but everyone wanted him.
Columbus, meanwhile, is a rough-looking team with an even rougher reputation. Though they are in the midst of replenishing their roster with the prospects you get when you’re not very good, the past few years have been cruel ones. After a franchise high point in 2019, when they upset the Lightning with a first-round sweep to win their first playoff series in team history, the Jackets had to suffer through the losses of several key players either through free agency or not-entirely-voluntary trades, including Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. In addition to the ensuing drop in on-ice play—they finished last in their division in 2021 and sixth in 2022—the departures also garnered the Jackets a reputation as a second-rate franchise that nobody really wanted to play for.
So Columbus stayed completely under the radar while the speculation swirled around Gaudreau. Calgary got the first crack at him, and they reportedly offered more money than anyone—eight years at $10.5 million per—to make him a Flame for life. But with Gaudreau’s wife Meredith expecting their first child, and with his family in New Jersey, their star turned them down, reportedly in search of a team somewhere closer to home.
That left the Devils, the Flyers, and the Islanders as prime contenders. The Flyers might have had the inside track as Gaudreau’s favorite team as a kid, but GM Chuck Fletcher is currently doing god knows what with that roster, and he confirmed on Wednesday that signing Gaudreau would have been a financial impossibility. According to Pierre LeBrun’s reporting at The Athletic, the Isles, too, couldn’t create the cap space to make a serious offer. That left the Devils—who, for what it’s worth, have been major rivals to the Flyers especially when Gaudreau was a preteen—and the Jackets, who are … kind of eastish? They certainly had the necessary cash, at least. And before anyone on the outside knew what was happening, Columbus snapped up by far the flashiest free agent they’ve ever landed.
Gaudreau, in trying to answer the “…what.” on everybody’s lips, cited his existing relationships with current players like Eric Robinson and Zach Werenski, endorsements from other guys who have passed through the team, and maybe most unpredictably, an appreciation for the atmosphere he experienced in Central Ohio.
“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, and I was just … ‘Wow!’” Gaudreau told The Athletic on Wednesday. (The interview was conducted by phone, so it’s impossible to confirm whether or not anyone was holding a gun to his head.) “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I said to myself then, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.’”
That is a man who grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Boston, and spent the last eight years in motherfucking Alberta claiming that the enthusiasm for hockey in Columbus was too much to resist. It’s a little hard to believe, isn’t it? But as the Blue Jackets look to use this signing and the presence of high draft picks like Kent Johnson to vault up 20 or so points into playoff position (they still need to work on that leaky defense), they hope that Gaudreau’s praise will help shut down the snorting snobs like myself.
“I think we can finally get rid of the bullshit that this is somehow a bad destination, a bad city, whatever,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen told The Athletic. “Because it’s never been true. We got a bad rap because a couple of people decided all along that they weren’t going to be here long-term for various reasons, but it has never been about the city or the organization. We’ve just had to shut our mouth and deal with that, but every time I see a comment like that, I get a rash.”
Of course, Gaudreau’s surprising decision also means he’ll be plying his trade in the same city that famed editorial cartoonist Ray Evans once called home. Evans, who lived from 1887 to 1954, worked at papers in Ohio and Baltimore before settling into a 32-year tenure with the Columbus Dispatch. (I liked this one he did about politicians ignoring and then pandering to women after they won the right to vote.) Evans’s work was widely circulated, and he was estimated upon his death to have drawn some 6,000 cartoons just while at the Dispatch alone.
Gaudreau has yet to comment on the effect that Evans’s legacy did or did not have on his decision to play in Columbus.