By JOHN WAWROW and STEPHEN WHYNO
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, Jaromir Jagr — remember him? — even wondered whether he could get in on the action.
In a message to NHL GMs on Twitter, Jagr wrote that he is a little slow at 50 but has strong hands, before closing his note with “Call me anytime,” followed by a winking emoji.
With all the moves and all the money being thrown around in the opening hours of free agency, it would hard to blame Jagr for joking about the possibility of returning for a 25th NHL season.
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 $28.125, five-year contract, and forwards David Perron and Dominik Kubalik two two-year deals.
Washington GM Brian MacLellan took particular notice of the Red Wings being one of the teams with cap space that capitalized on it.
“Detroit was really busy,” MacLellan said with a laugh. “It went real quick. I think you add another team and you got 32 teams competing for guys, it’s a competitive environment.”
The Capitals signed Kuemper to a $26.25 million, five-year contract. Kuemper, who had a career-best 37 wins last season, takes over after the Capitals moved on from llya Samsonov by not issuing him a qualifying offer and traded Vitek Vanecek to New Jersey.
Colorado also 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 in a trade for future considerations.
The move freed up the final year of Pacioretty’s contract, and the $7 million salary cap hit it represented, from Vegas’ payroll.
With Gaudreau off the market, forward Nazem Kadri and defenseman John Klingberg, were the top players still available through Wednesday evening.
Giroux’s signing in Ottawa was expected: General manager Pierre Dorion joked he couldn’t escape Senators fans asking: “When are you signing Claude?” Giroux, who played his junior hockey across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Quebec, signed a $19.5 million, three-year contract.
The 34-year-old Giroux brings veteran leadership to Ottawa’s mix of youngsters. He spent his first 14-plus seasons in Philadelphia, where he served as the Flyers captain, before being traded to Florida in March.
“I wouldn’t sign here if I didn’t think we had a chance to win the Cup,” Giroux said. “I’m not saying we’re going to win the Cup this year, but the plan is to build on it and have baby steps for that.”
Trocheck signed a $39.375 million, seven-year contract with the Rangers following Copp’s departure. The 29-year-old Trocheck has nine seasons of NHL experience, including two-plus years in Carolina, where he had 39 goals and 96 points in 135 games with the Hurricanes.
Trocheck is reunited with Rangers coach Gerard Gallant after the two were together in Florida.
“This was one of just a few teams that we really looked at and thought it was a good fit. So coming in, we knew that New York was probably our number one choice,” he said.
Besides Kuemper, the offseason-long goalie carousel saw Jack Campbell leave Toronto for a five-year, $25 million contract with Edmonton. Campbell cashed in after a season in which he had career highs in wins with a 31-9-6 record, five shutouts and 47 starts.
The Oilers are retooling after veteran Mike Smith’s playoff inconsistencies contributed to the Oilers being outscored 22-13 in a sweep by Colorado in the Western Conference Final.
The Chicago Blackhawks finally began adding talent by signing six players, including forwards Andreas Athanasiou and Max Domi to one-year, $3 million contracts. The Blackhawks are in a full rebuild after trading center Kirby Dach to Montreal and forward Alex DeBrincat to Ottawa and watching Kubalik leave for Detroit.
AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage and AP freelance writer Denis Gorman contributed.
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