Blue Jackets in NHL free agency: Columbus signs Erik Gudbranson

The veteran defenseman will earn $4 million per season and give Columbus more perspective against physical teams.

The Blue Jackets were tired of being pushed around.

After a number of big teams took liberties with their best players last season, the Jackets management team approached the problem this offseason with a combination of tenacity.

The first strike came on June 30, when a fourth-round pick in last week’s draft was sent to the Nashville Predators to acquire Mathieu Olivier – a spunky 25-year-old forward who doesn’t shy away from throwing punches or grabbing hands. The second salvo landed Wednesday afternoon, when the Blue Jackets inked Erik Gudbranson, a 6-foot-5, 217-pound veteran defenseman whose main job is to bolster the Jackets’ resolve.

“It was important,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “We felt that we were sometimes light. This is probably one of the causes of the defensive problems we had. We have a lot of guys who are mobile and capable, and good NHL players, but we were really light there. Well, we’re a lot heavier there right now.

It was expensive, however.

Gudbranson, 30, signed a four-year, $16 million contract that will cost the Blue Jackets an average annual value of $4 million per season over the NHL’s salary cap. That’s a $2.05 million per season increase from the $1.95 million the Calgary Flames paid him to provide the same items last season.

After: Columbus Blue Jackets: Five questions about a big week ahead

Prior to signing with Calgary, Gudbranson split the previous three years between the Vancouver Canucks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, playing a three-year contract worth $12 million. dollars he originally signed with the Canucks in 2018.

That’s the same cap the Blue Jackets will pay for the next four years if they keep the powerful defender for the full term of his new contract.

As soon as the news became public, many Blue Jackets fans expressed their displeasure with the signing on social media, citing the move as a significant “overpayment” for a player who has just 27 goals. 67 assists and 94 points in 641 NHL. Games.

“There are criticisms one way or another, no matter what we do,” Kekalainen said. “There are always critics. So, you know, with all due respect and we appreciate the passion of the fans… the only thing I will say is this system dictates the ABC, before the years (unrestricted free agent) , we have to pay guys just for their points and ice time and other stats. When you come to UFA, you also pay for the intangibles, and that’s what this guy brings, and that’s the price of doing business and the market dictates that.

Gudbranson, selected third overall in 2010 by the Florida Panthers, is a homebody-style defenseman. He’s also a scrapper who fought seven times last season — once in preseason and six times in the regular season. He also recorded 708 penalty minutes during his NHL career, including several after defending teammates or intimidating opposing players.

“I try to bring guys into the fight with me, if that’s any way to put it,” Gudbranson said. “Hopefully I can make the guys feel a little more comfortable on the ice and make it a staple here.”

These are things the Blue Jackets didn’t have last season after forward Zac Rinaldo – the muscle Kekalainen signed last summer – was kicked out of training camp because he refused a COVID-19 vaccine. 19. The Jackets’ most talented players have paid the price while being targeted by bigger teams – including a pair of games against the Minnesota Wild.

This will not be a problem in the coming season.

Olivier is expected to gain regular playing time up front and Gudbranson will position himself somewhere in the Jackets’ top three defensive pairings. He’s also right-handed, has a big slap shot from the point and will give the Jackets defense more bite around their own net.

“He brings all those elements that we lacked and he’s a great character guy,” said Kekalainen, who noted that one of Gudbranson’s former NHL coaches had already reached out to vouch for his leadership and attitude. “Our (pro) scouts have been doing this all year. We have identified the goals we need and our problem is not to score goals. … We just have to keep the puck out of our net, and this guy can defend, he’s a penalty killer and he’s got size, strength, toughness, grit and leadership. So we are very happy to have Erik here.

Last season was also a career high for Gudbranson, who finished with records for goals (six), assists (11), points (17), shots (129) and plus/minus (+ 15) while recording the second-highest ice time of his career (1,414:09). He served 68 penalty minutes, took 14 penalties, had 145 hits, blocked 92 shots and, according to Natural Stat Trick, absorbed 164 hits.

“I did a lot of things two summers ago, just working to be efficient all over the ice,” Gudbranson said. “A big part of it, believe it or not, was changing my (stick) curve and being able to set the pucks up quickly. In the offensive zone, everything is pushed to the front of the net and when it comes to low to high point, you have to be able to set the puck up quickly and find a hole to make it happen. I was very proud of it this year and it went pretty well. It was really good for my confidence to get that part of my game going.”

Blue Jackets sign 2022 first-round picks David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk

The Blue Jackets announced shortly after the opener of free-standing play that defensemen David Jiricek and Denton Mateychuk, the team’s first-round picks this year, had each signed three-year entry-level contracts.

Jircek, 18, was selected sixth overall in the 2022 NHL Draft last week in Montreal. Mateychuk, who turned 18 on Wednesday, was selected six picks later at No. 12. Each of the highly respected defenders took part in a development camp this week in Chiller North which lasted three days and ended with a scrimmage on Wednesday attended by a large number of fans.

Jiricek and Mateychuk each showed skills in their first development camp that spurred the Blue Jackets to take them so high in the draft. Jiricek’s size, skating and skill with the puck were evident and Mateychuk impressed with his smooth skating, soft hands and creative take on the game.

Both Jiricek and Mateychuk could play for the Jackets team that travels to Traverse City, Michigan in September for the annual Prospects Tournament and both are scheduled to attend their first NHL training camp in September.

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Christy J. Olson