By Jenny Masters
Once it became public that Johnny Gaudreau was leaving Calgary, the South Jersey native was immediately tied to teams near his home state, including the Devils, Flyers and New York Islanders.
And it turns out that the Flyers, Devils and Isles never had a shot at landing him.
Columbus wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a potential landing spot — not even Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen’s — until Wednesday afternoon.
Gaudreau shocked the hockey world when he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets on the opening day of NHL free agency Wednesday.
But according to Gaudreau — who was one of this year’s most coveted unrestricted free agents — the decision to agree on a seven-year, $68.25 million pact with the Blue Jackets was a no-brainer.
“I wanted to come here. This was always a place circled on my list,” Gaudreau told reporters during his introductory news conference on Thursday.
“I’m not really sure about any other players. We’re not talking about why people don’t want to Columbus; it’s not a topic in the locker room. For me, I just heard so many great things from former players, and it made me feel really comfortable with my decision to come here.”
The 28-year-old left wing arrived with the Blue Jackets after spending his entire nine-season career to date with the Calgary Flames. Gaudreau told the Flames earlier this week that, despite general manager Brad Treliving’s best efforts to get an extension done, he would not be coming back to the team.
Gaudreau hit the open market instead, leaving Calgary after scoring 609 points in 602 games. He hit a career-high 40 goals and 115 points in 82 games last season playing with Matthew Tkachuk and Elias Lindholm. They were one of the NHL’s best lines throughout the year, and Gaudreau had never performed better.
Calgary was the Pacific Division’s top seed, and despite a second-round playoff exit, the future looks bright for the Flames. The forward still felt compelled to move on.
“Calgary was a special place for me. I was part of their organization for 12 years,” he said. “I loved every second I was there. But for me, I think it was just time for me to make a little bit of a change. I’ll leave it at that. But I loved it there. And the fans were great to me.”
Columbus had to do some creative accounting to manage Gaudreau’s hefty new contract, knowing restricted free agents like Patrik Laine still have qualifying offers to accept that will go on the books, but Kekäläinen is confident he can fit everyone in.
“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,” he said. “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.”
That’s what Gaudreau is counting on. He and wife, Meredith — who is expecting — are in with Columbus for the long haul as place to grow their family. The Blue Jackets have missed the postseason the past two years, but Gaudreau likes what he sees in their ranks and wants to help the team bounce back.
“I think there’s a lot of potential,” he said. “I thought it was a good spot for me personally. We can have a lot of success here. They’ve got good players on this team. And I’m really looking forward to jumping in with this group. I’ve heard a lot of great things. They’re a close-knit group, and that’s who you want to play with are guys who get along in the locker room and love coming to the rink and working together every single day, and it’s just a healthy environment to be around, and that’s exciting to me.”