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NHL - US Sports: Gaudreau joins Blue Jackets - can he and the team succeed

Johnny Gaudreau shocked the hockey world on the opening day of free agency ending his eight-year stay with the Calgary Flames to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

Much was spoken about Gaudreau's desire to return closer to his New Jersey home, with the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers heavily rumoured to be interested in the 28-year-old. 

The announcement from the Blue Jackets came out of nowhere, though, and ranks high on the list of best kept free agency surprises in NHL history. 

But now the deal is done, will it be a match made in heaven or one the player and team will live to regret?

Leaving money on the table

Gaudreau, who turns 29 in early August, signed a seven-year, $68.25 million ($9.75 million average-annual-value) contract with the Blue Jackets, significantly less than what was reportedly offered by the Flames.

Insisting he "did his homework" ahead of agreeing the move, Gaudreau says his decision was made not only based on where he wants to raise a family, but also because he believes the Blue Jackets have a fast-developing team who are reaching maturity and ready to win.

The Blue Jackets are 12/1 to win the Stanley Cup in 2023.

Gaudreau believes in Blue Jackets 

The Blue Jackets haven't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the past two seasons, missing by 19 points last season and 16 in 2020/21, but that hasn't put off Gaudreau who believes the franchise is heading in the right direction.

Under first-year coach Brad Larsen, Columbus battled for a playoff spot up until March last season before they fell away, with what was the youngest team in the NHL with an average age 25.71.

Their determination was evident, coming from behind in 23 of their 37 victories, which was a single-season franchise record and sixth-most in the NHL.

Columbus also set a franchise record for goals scored (262), led by Oliver Bjorkstrand with 28 and Patrik Laine with 26.

Adding a superstar in his prime to a healthy mix of veteran experience and youthful enthusiasm is only likely to help the Blue Jackets in the next step of their progression.

Especially when said star scored almost double the points of any Blue Jacket last season (62 the most by Jakub Voracek).  

Career year  

Gaudreau enjoyed a career high in goals (40) and assists (75) in 82 games over the last regular season and his total of 115 points led the Flames and was tied for second in the entire NHL. 

The left-winger led the league with a plus-64 rating and also set a career best in game-winning goals (nine) and shots on goal (262).

Gaudreau also led the Flames in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 12 games.

In total for Calgary, the six-time All-Star tallied 609 points (210 goals, 399 assists) in 602 regular season games and 33 points (11 goals, 22 assists) in 42 playoff games. 

Since entering the league in 2014/15, Gaudreau ranks third in the NHL in assists and sixth in points.

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Powerplay improvement

A surprisingly low draft-pick in 2011 (fourth round, 104th overall), Gaudreau will help spark to life a Blue Jackets powerplay which sat 21st in the NHL last season at 78.6%.

25 of Gaudreau's points came on the powerplay last season (six goals, 19 assists) helping the Flames to a 22.9% success rate which ranked sixth best in the league. 

Over his time in Calgary, Gaudreau has consistently been replied upon on the man advantage amassing 171 points (46 goals, 125 assists) on the powerplay. 

Narrative change

Gaudreau's signing has instantly changed the Columbus narrative, from a team known for losing high-profile players to a place for the superstars again.  

Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Seth Jones have all departed in recent years, but along with Gaudreau other important pieces are now committing their long-term future to the Blue Jackets. 

Top-scorer Bjorkstrand was first, followed by captain Boone Jenner, star blue-liner Zack Werenski and goalie Elvis Merzlikins.

Goal-getter Laine is the next priority for General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen who thanked the Blue Jackets ownership for allowing him the opportunity to try and "bring the Stanley Cup to Columbus."

Draft picks 

Columbus' recent draft picks will be relied upon to help with that quest, with the franchise enjoying five first round selections in the past two years.

In the recent 2022 draft, the Blue Jackets focussed on their defence which conceded 300 goals last season (fifth worst in the NHL). 

Imposing Czech David Jiricek and offensive-juggernaut Denton Mateychuck were selected, adding to last year's first round selection of 6'2" all-rounder Corson Ceulemans.

Ceulemans was just one of three first round picks of the Blue Jackets in 2021, who also added a pair of centres in Kent Johnson and Cole Sillinger who both impressed in the NHL last season.  

Confusion reigns 

Gaudreau's decision to depart a team where he was the face of the franchise, and who finished first in the Pacific Division and have genuine aspirations to win a Stanley Cup still continues to baffle many. 

What he sees in Columbus is clear, but it is an obvious leap of faith which may require patience to see it come to fruition.

For now, though, the city is buzzing for the arrival of Johnny Hockey and he'll certainly make them instantly better.  

How much better, only time will tell.

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