Johnny Gaudreau focused on the positive in Columbus

Johnny Gaudreau was confused, if not amused. It was Saturday night in Long Island, and every time the Blue Jackets winger touched the puck, he was booed by Islanders fans at the UBS Arena.

“I was talking to my coach after the third shift and I was like, ‘I don’t get it,'” Gaudreau said. “I didn’t speak to you [the Islanders] once in the whole free agency.”

Such is life for Gaudreau. It’s been four months since the 29-year-old signed a seven-year, $68.2 million deal with Columbus – he turned down the Calgary Flames, his team for the past nine years and several other organizations regardless of their interest was real or supposed.

And the hockey world is still obsessed with it.

That’s partly because the marriage between Gaudreau and Columbus seemingly came out of nowhere. The other part? You rarely see that in the NHL.

“It’s nice to hear that a fandom wanted you and didn’t get you, but I wasn’t expecting to hear things take this long,” Gaudreau said. “A lot of players in my position end up re-signing with their teams. [Filip] forsberg [in Nashville], [Nathan] MacKinnon in Colorado. I went in a different direction.”

The spotlight will likely be back tonight when the Blue Jackets take on the Flyers (7:30 p.m., ESPN+/Hulu), another team Gaudreau has been linked with.

Columbus (4-9-1) stumbled out of the gate, hampered by a brutal series of injuries. But Gaudreau – who has 12 points in his first 14 games, including all six of his home goals – is focused on positivity.

The choice of Columbus was inherently about what was best for Gaudreau as a person. And even if his tone has shifted somewhat a month into the season – and settled into the team’s current reality – his free agency decision has always been a long game.

“I’m here for the long haul,” Gaudreau said. “Obviously I want to make the playoffs this year, but if it doesn’t happen yet, you have to learn from those things. I’m not leaving it to our team to get out of this funk, but I also know what’s happening, we have a lot to look forward to.”

IN THE PRE-SEASON Player Media Tour, Blue Jackets defender Zach Werensky raved about the mood swings in Columbus. Not only Gaudreau chose Columbus. patrick laine also committed to a four-year extension.

Werenski noted that the Blue Jackets had been known as a defensive team for years, but now had several skilled players who would change identities. And after getting stuck with the narrative as a place the boys didn’t want to stay, the opposite happened.

“Our identity is changing,” said Werenski. “And I can’t wait to be a part of it.”

But after Laine missed two weeks with a sprained elbow – returning just in time for the team’s trip to his native Finland – the winger sprained his ankle against the islanders and will be out for another three to four weeks.

Laine and Gaudreau are to join forces in the top line of Columbus. Gaudreau said at the end of preseason he and Laine “started to really hit it off” as they figured out details in their game, like anticipating when Laine wanted the pass. They were just starting to bounce back after Laine’s setback, “which was tough,” Gaudreau said.

The prognosis was worse for Werensky; The team’s top defender is expected to be out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury he sustained last week. “I felt more bad for [Werenski] than anything because he was really looking forward to this season,” Gaudreau said. “It just sucks. He’s such a leader on this team.”

The Blue Jackets also lost their second defenseman Nick Blankenburg (fractured ankle, six to eight weeks) in the same game. Coupled with long-term injuries to veteran Sean Kuraly and winger Jakub Voracek, it was frankly a nightmare scenario.

Gaudreau said he had no choice but to focus on the positives – and the biggest positive was that younger players would get important replays. “The talented young guys in this team are so impressive,” he said. “Cole Sillinger, KentJohnson and Yegor Chinakhov. They’re fun to hang out with and play with every day at practice.”

At Calgary, Gaudreau was mid-table in terms of experience. At Columbus, he is the fourth-oldest player on the team. And he feels compelled to speak up more and pass on the mentoring moments that benefited him early in his career.

As for an assessment of his own game? “My defensive play has gotten better;” he said. “Maybe I slacked off a bit at the start of the season, but I feel good about how things are going.”

Referencing the message he received from coach Brad Larsen before the season, Gaudreau said, “He said to me, ‘I want you to do exactly the same thing that you did in Calgary, be the same player. Remember, you are just a player. You can’t carry a team alone.'”

IT WAS NOT UNTIL Three or four weeks ago, Gaudreau said he finally felt settled in Columbus. He described the move as “hectic”. Then, in October, he and his wife Meredith welcomed their first child, a daughter named Noa.

He’s already feeling the lifestyle changes of fatherhood. Less time for hunting, one of his favorite pastimes to take his mind off the ice rink. Less time playing video games with friends. And a lot less sleep.

Everything was made easier by moving east – the deciding factor in his decision. Travel in the Eastern Conference was significantly less stressful. “Air travel is much shorter. And apart from the trip to Finland, I think I only spent 5-6 nights in a hotel,” he said. “So it’s a lot more time at home and less time on the road. And we’re close to family now too. My parents can now come out to a random Sunday night game, which wasn’t possible before.”

Gaudreau says he’s less recognized in Columbus than Calgary, but the interactions feel more meaningful.

“People come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for choosing Columbus, thank you for believing in us, it means so much to us,'” Gaudreau said. “And that means a lot to me.”

Because the search for his new home was not easy.

“Honestly, if I had to do free agency again, I don’t know if I would have done it,” he said. “The fanbase in the city you’re in wants you back, it’s hard on you too. It was a pretty tough two to three months there.”

He knows people will always talk, but there was one narrative that didn’t go over well.

“People thought I was trying to chase money, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” he said. “It was about what’s best for me and my family and my wife and her family. I love the city here in Columbus, I love the team here, I’m really happy to be here. Even if it wasn’t the start we wanted, I wouldn’t change my decision for the world.”

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