How good can the Blue Jackets be after signing Johnny Gaudreau?

blue jackets gaudreau
Gerry Thomas, Getty Images

Whether you agree or disagree with his vision and roster moves, you have to give Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen credit for one thing. He is not afraid to take a risk or make every effort to improve his roster.

Wednesday’s stunning signing of unrestricted free agent Johnny Gaudreau was perhaps the biggest move of his tenure in and it has certainly raised eyebrows around the league given where Columbus finished the 2021-22 season. They were not a playoff team, nobody expected them to be major players in the free agent market (especially for Gaudreau), and there is still some debate as to how good they can actually be this season.

It is not the first time Kekäläinen and the Blue Jackets have done something like this.

Think back to the 2019 NHL trade deadline when Columbus, facing the prospect of losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky after the season in unrestricted free agency, not only kept both players, but went all in by adding Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid in an effort to make the playoffs. They did, and then pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history when they swept a record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning team in four games.

This is the offseason version of that.

[Related: Blue Jackets sign Gaudreau in free agency stunner]

In a league where most GMs and teams seem to be incredibly risk averse, Kekäläinen’s approach is a breath of fresh air for fans that like seeing teams make an effort to get better. Sometimes that is all it takes. Think back to last offseason when the Los Angeles Kings, still considered to be in a rebuild, spent big money on adding Viktor Arvidsson and Philip Danault to complement their young players. The result was a rapid improvement that put them in the playoffs ahead of schedule, while they were a close Game 7 away from actually advancing. They made an actual effort to get better, and they did.

The question here is how much better are the Blue Jackets going to be?

Columbus was a 10th-place team in the Eastern Conference this past season and is not really considered a contender. But there is still a lot of talent here.

Cole Sillinger is entering his second year and coming off of a rookie season where he scored 16 goals and 31 points as an 18-year-old.

Oliver Bjorkstrand and Gustav Nyquist are legit top-six forwards. Jack Roslovic and Boone Jenner have that ability. There are also some interesting young players like Emil Benstron and Alexandre Texier with potential.

On defense, Zach Werenski is a legitimate top-pairing defenseman while the Seth Jones trade has helped rebuild that unit around him with talented young players (Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean, and No. 6 overall pick.

Now they have a bonafide superstar and one of the league’s elite players on their roster. For a team that badly needed a star and has watched their own stars leave town one after another, this is a massive moment.

There are two wild cards that will determine what this team can do this season (and in the near future).

What happens with Patrik Laine?

This is significant.

Laine remains a restricted free agent while the Blue Jackets have just a little more than $3 million in salary cap space remaining, per Cap Friendly.

Does Laine still factor into their short-term (or long-term) plans? Or is Gaudreau seen as a replacement for him? If it is the former, a lineup that has both Laine and Gaudreau in it has the potential to be fairly dynamic. That is two stars on the roster, especially given the way Laine bounced back this year offensively.

If they are going to keep him they are going to have to move out salary somewhere to fit him under the cap. Jakub Voracek‘s $8.25 million salary cap is costly over the next two years and would be a prime candidate to move if they could find a taker.

Simply swapping out Laine for Gaudreau might be an upgrade, especially if you factor in a return on a hypothetical Laine trade, but it is probably not as big of an upgrade as having both of them on the roster together.


The other big X-factor for every team.

This was a big problem for the Blue Jackets during the 2021-22 season as both Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo struggled. The team finished in the bottom-10 of the league in both all situations and 5-on-5 save percentage, and it was a significant step backwards from what the duo has shown in the past. It is also totally understandable that both goalies struggled given the offseason death of teammate Matīss Kivlenieks. Merzlikins talked after the season how he had games where he struggled. It would be unfair to use his performance this past season as a measuring stick of what to expect moving forward. As good as professional athletes are at their jobs, they are still human.

Merzlikins does not have a huge track record in the NHL, but his first two years in the league were extremely productive. Among the 40 goalies that appeared in at least 50 games during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, Merzlikins’ .920 all situations save percentage was fifth best in the NHL while his .922 even-strength save percentage was 11th best.

There is every reason to believe that both he and Korpisalo can be better this season.

Based on the 2021-22 season Columbus would have a 19-point gap to make up in the playoff race to make the playoffs. That is a lot. But with better goaltending, a full season of Laine, the addition of Gaudreau, and some of their young players could help get them there.

[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]

Every year there are multiple teams that make the playoffs after missing the previous season. It is a given that it will happen. For as good as the Eastern Conference and Metropolitan Division is there are some teams that could be vulnerable. Washington is getting older and will be without some key players at the start of the season (and perhaps Nicklas Backstrom all season). Boston’s roster is a total wild card right now as nobody knows if Patrice Bergeron (or David Krejci) will be back, while they will be starting the season with multiple key players sidelined, including Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy. Pittsburgh is a year older with some questions.

As for their non-playoff competitors, the Islanders have lost in the dust and missed out on everybody. The Devils were still 20 points back of the Blue Jackets and both teams lost out on Gaudreau to the Blue Jackets. Detroit might be able to make a move up, but they signed a bunch of good players instead of a superstar.

It is not a given, but there is a definite path to the playoffs for Columbus and the potential is certainly there. In a league where teams are afraid to take a gamble the Blue Jackets have a way of keeping things interesting. Sometimes you just have to try. Maybe if it works other teams will follow.

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    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.


    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.


    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.


    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”


    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

    Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

    General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

    Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

    The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

    Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.