The Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off the improbable, landing the hottest free agent on the market in winger Johnny Gaudreau.
The 29-year old Gaudreau had a career-high 115 points last season in his ninth year with Calgary. He was lured to Columbus with a seven-year deal worth $9.75 million a season and the prospect of playing closer to his New Jersey home.
“Johnny Hockey” might be the most exciting forward to play for the Blue Jackets since Artemi Panarin in 2017-19. He’s a difference-maker, and the buzz is palpable.
“A lot of questions from people,” said Blue Jackets forward and Columbus native Jack Roslovic. “Everyone seems to know of this Johnny Gaudreau guy who’s coming in. Is he the real deal? People seem to be excited and, I’d say, intrigued as well.”
But how much of a difference will he be able to make?
Columbus finished last season 37-38-7 with 81 points, sixth place in the Metropolitan Division and 19 points out of the final postseason spot. The Blue Jackets missed the playoffs for the second season after four straight appearances.
The team’s top goal-scorer and fan favourite, Oliver Bjorkstrand, was dealt to Seattle for draft picks to free up room under the salary cap. And Gaudreau quickly settled in — he bought Bjorkstrand’s house in Columbus.
THE FIRST LINE
Whether Columbus can produce more offense may depend on how Gaudreau meshes with right winger Patrik Laine, who signed to a four-year deal worth $8.7 million per season to stay in town. Gaudreau’s puck-handling and playmaking ability should give the 24-year-old Laine an opportunity to improve on his 26 goals last season. The Jackets hope he can get closer to the 44 goals and 26 assists he recorded in 2017-18 with Winnipeg.
“It takes time to get used to playing with new players, but when you’re playing with players like that, it comes easy,” Gaudreau said after Sunday’s preseason opener, a 5-1 win over Pittsburgh. “For the most part, I thought we played in the O-zone for most of the game, and we looked good together.”
Veteran wingers Jakub Voracek (six goals, 56 assists) and Gustav Nyquist (18 goals, 35 assists) will be in the top six, but there will plenty of competition for the other forward spots.
IN THE MIDDLE
The issue of who will center the top line with Gaudreau and Laine will be worked out in training camp. It could be Boone Jenner, Roslovic or Cole Sillinger. Jenner is coming back after missing the last two months of the 2021-22 season with a back injury.
“I’m going to try a few guys in the middle,” Larsen said. “Who’s going to start there? I might try Boone there right away. I haven’t decided yet, but that would be my choice right out of the gate. Veteran guy, and I think he could complement them.”
The Blue Jackets got pushed around last season without an enforcer type of player. To help remedy that, they signed 11-year veteran free agent Erik Gudbranson, a 6-foot-5, 222-pound defenseman, and traded for Mathieu Olivier, a big, hard-checking forward who is not shy about throwing punches around. Rookie defenseman Nick Blankenberg, who impressed the team with his hard-nosed physicality at the end of last season, signed a two-year deal in April.
“We felt that we were light at times,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “That’s probably one cause of the defensive issues that we had. We have a lot of guys that are mobile and skilled, and good NHL players, but we were really light back there. Well, we’re a lot heavier back there right now.”
IN THE NET
Elvis Merzlikins is the presumed starter at goaltender. He started 59 games last year after signing a five-year contract extension, but last year’s 3.02 goals-against average and .907 save percentage were career lows. Veteran Joonas Korpisalo, coming off late-season hip surgery, is the likely backup.
FIRE THE CANNON
One of the biggest adjustments for Gaudreau — and any player new to Nationwide Arena — is the ear-splitting blast of the cannon that fires before the game, every time the Blue Jackets score, and after a win. It can be startling to the uninitiated.
“It got me twice,” Gaudreau said with a grin after Sunday’s preseason game. “But we scored five times. I’m getting there. It got me on the first goal and at the end of the game.”