Thursday, August 11, 2022

NHL free agency: How Johnny Gaudreau will fit in with the Blue Jackets

As free agency began on Wednesday, Johnny Gaudreau was easily the biggest fish available on the open market. After deciding that he wouldn’t be re-signing with the Calgary Flames, the biggest question became where Gaudreau would land for the next chapter of his NHL career.

It was widely believed that Gaudreau, who is originally from South Jersey, wanted to play closer to home. With that in mind, the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers were looking like the likely destinations for the star winger. However, Gaudreau sent shockwaves through the hockey world when he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Gaudreau signed a seven-year, $68.25 million contract ($9.75 million AAV) with Columbus. In the process, the 28-year old reportedly left more money on the table with the Flames and Devils in order to join the Blue Jackets.

“I always dreamed about playing a tad closer to home,” Gaudreau said during a press conference on Thursday. “It didn’t matter where I was signing. Our decision was it was best for us not to go back to Calgary.” 

Gaudreau had spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the Flames. During that time, he scored 210 goals and recorded 399 assists in 602 career games. Gaudreau also finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting in two of the past four seasons, which is awarded to the league MVP.

The five-time All-Star is coming off a career-best 115 points (40 goals and 75 assists). Gaudreau helped lead the Flames to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before falling at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers. Gaudreau leaves the Flames as one of the team’s greatest players as he currently has the fifth-most points (609), fifth-most assists (399), and fifth-most game-winning goals (41).

What will Gaudreau’s supporting cast look like?

Gaudreau goes from playing on a top line with Elias Lindholm and Matthew Tkachuk to a top line with a little more uncertainty. 

Blue Jackets star winger Patrik Laine would be phenomenal on a line with Gaudreau, but it’s not a given that the two are ever teammates in Columbus. Laine is currently a restricted free agent as the two sides have failed to come to an agreement on a new contract. 

According to theThe Columbus Dispatch, the Blue Jackets still want to get a contract extension done with Laine even with the signing of Gaudreau. It’s obviously going to be a pricey deal if Columbus is able to get one done. After all, the 24-year old winger made $7.5 million during the 2021-22 season.

Laine has been one of the NHL’s most exciting goal scorers since breaking into the league back in 2016. The Finnish import had three 30-goal seasons to start off his career with the Winnipeg Jets, but hasn’t reached that plateau since being traded to the Blue Jackets during the 2021-21 season.

Laine has a lethal shot and can score from just about anywhere on the ice. If he gets in open space, the Blue Jackets winger can accurately place the puck wherever he wants in the back of the net. With a terrific passer like Gaudreau playing on the same line, getting back to scoring 30-40 goals is definitely in the cards for the former No. 2 pick and playing together will benefit both star players.

The Blue Jackets’ top line will likely also feature center Jack Roslovic, who is coming off of a season in which he registered a career-high 45 points (22 goals, 23 assists). Roslovic is slated to enter his third season in Columbus and has made significant strides in each of his first two campaigns with the franchise.

Roslovic is a playmaker that possesses stellar skating ability, which allows him to make extraordinary plays quite frequently. The Blue Jackets rising star is also a phenomenal stick-handler and that helps has helped him finish around the net on many occasions.

Roslovic has also improved as a passer since his arrival in Columbus. Over the past two seasons, Roslovic has registered 45 assists while with the Blue Jackets. In his three seasons with the Jets prior to that, the American-born center had just 41 assists to his credit.

It’s not crazy to think that his assist numbers could continue to rise if he ends up playing playing on the same line as lethal scoring options like Gaudreau and Laine. Having Roslovic as Gaudreau’s center may not be as exciting as if he was still playing with Lindholm in Calgary or joined Jack Hughes in New Jersey, but the chance for some gaudy offensive numbers is there.

What can be expected of Gaudreau in his new home?

While registering 115 points last season was a career best, Gaudreau has showcased his ability to be an offensive force throughout his career.

In his last two full seasons prior to the 2021-22 campaign, Gaudreau recorded at least 84 points in each of those seasons. During the 2018-19 season, Gaudreau tallied 99 points (36 goals and 63 assists), which was good for seventh across the NHL.

Gaudreau may not tally 100 points every season, but an 80-90-point season could really be the new norm given the kind of talent that Gaudreau will be playing with.

It’s no secret that Gaudreau is the type of player that can score from any area on the ice. Given his tremendous patience, his pinpoint accuracy is unmatched. It also doesn’t hurt that Gaudreau possesses above-average speed that allows him to get behind the defense a good amount of the time.

There is no doubt that there is still the potential for Gaudreau to hover around 30-40 goals playing on a line with Laine and Roslovic. However, it’s the assists department where the former Flames star could thrive with his new team.

If you take Gaudreau’s 75-assist performance this past season out of the equation, his best years resulted in 63 assists during the 2018-19 season and 60 assists in the 2017-18 campaign. That’s obviously nothing to scoff at, but Gaudreau has the opportunity to surpass that in Columbus.

Gaudreau played on a terrific top line in Calgary with Tkachuk and Lindholm. This isn’t necessarily saying that Columbus’ top line will eclipse that type of production, but Gaudreau has never had the fortune of playing alongside a forward with the scoring ability of Laine.

Given Laine’s dangerous shot, he’s always a threat to score. Having a talented yet patient facilitator in Gaudreau now in the fold could do wonders for his career. 

When the dust settles on Gaudreau’s time in Columbus, he may not see that 115-point mark. Still, the opportunity for him to be extremely successful definitely exists despite Gaudreau facing a fair amount of criticism for his decision to sign with the Blue Jackets.

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