A hectic start to the NHL’s free-agency period Wednesday closed with the Columbus Blue Jackets landing the highest-profile player: “Johnny Hockey.”
Johnny Gaudreau cashed in on a career season by signing a $68.25 million, seven-year contract with Columbus in the Blue Jackets’ bid to return to prominence after losing their core of stars – including Artemi Panarin – in free agency two years ago.
Gaudreau’s decision to sign with Columbus came a day after turning down what an eight-year deal to re-sign with Calgary, where he spent his first nine NHL seasons. The Blue Jackets also signed defenseman Erik Gudbranson to a four-year, $16 million contract.
“Johnny Gaudreau is a superstar in the National Hockey League, and we couldn’t be happier to welcome him,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He is an elite player with great character that makes the players around him better.”
The 28-year-old who played at Boston College finished tied for second in the NHL with a career-best 115 points and 40 goals last season. And so much for the speculation of Gaudreau, who is from New Jersey, heading to a team much closer to home such as the Devils, Philadelphia Flyers or New York Islanders.
Gaudreau’s signing highlighted a busy day in which Claude Giroux looked ahead to a homecoming in Ottawa, the Washington Capitals landed Stanley Cup-winning goalie Darcy Kuemper and the New York Rangers spent big on center Vincent Trocheck.
The slight, $1 million rise of the NHL salary cap to $82.5 million, coupled with numerous teams dumping or buying out contracts to free up payroll space, led to a rush of action once teams were allowed to begin signing players.
“It was a little bit expected because teams have had time to recover from the COVID pandemic,” said defenseman Ben Chiarot, who signed a $19 million, four-year contract with Detroit. “Players thought it would be better than in past years because teams are operating at a normal clip.”
The Red Wings were among the busier teams in general manager Steve Yzerman’s bid to end a six-year playoff drought. Detroit also signed center Andrew Copp to a $28.13 million, five-year contract, and forwards David Perron and Dominik Kubalik two two-year deals.
The Red Wings, who won four Stanley Cups from 1997 to 2008, have been reeling since their run of 25 straight postseasons ended in 2016. They’ve missed six straight playoffs and been among the worst teams in the league.
“This team is definitely ready to start competing on a regular basis,” said Perron, 34, who has 665 career points in 973 games with St. Louis and four teams. “I want to be part of a solution.”
The newcomers join veteran forwards Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana along with Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider on the blue line and second-year forward Lucas Raymond.
The Capitals signed Kuemper to a $26.25 million, five-year deal. He had a career-best 37 wins last season.
Colorado bid farewell to forward Andre Burakovsky, who signed a $27.5 million contract with the Seattle Kraken. The defending champions did re-sign forward Artturi Lehkonen and defenseman Josh Manson to long-term contracts.
The Carolina Hurricanes completed two trades by first acquiring 2017 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Brent Burns in a deal with San Jose. Carolina then took advantage of the salary cap-strapped Vegas Golden Knights by acquiring forward Max Pacioretty and defenseman Dylan Coghlan for future considerations.
With Gaudreau off the market, forward Nazem Kadri and defenseman John Klingberg were the top players still available.
Giroux’s signing in Ottawa was expected. He played his junior hockey across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Quebec, signed a $19.5 million, three-year contract.
Trocheck, 29, signed a $39.375 million, seven-year contract with the Rangers.
Besides Kuemper, the offseason goalie carousel saw Jack Campbell leave Toronto for a five-year, $25 million contract with Edmonton.
The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks finally signed six players, including forwards Andreas Athanasiou and Max Domi to one-year, $3 million contracts.