Blue Jackets’ Pros and Cons of Signing Erik Gudbranson

Everyone knew the Columbus Blue Jackets were going to sign someone in free agency. They spelled it out in exit interviews saying they needed to get better and implied they’d be looking outside the organization to fill some holes. Surprisingly, they stayed quiet on the trade market at the NHL Draft, which is where general manager Jarmo Kekalainen generally does a majority of his handiwork. That set the table for a splash in free agency.

While no one predicted them going out and landing the top free agent on the market — myself included — one could have predicted the first signing they made on the day.

As the dust seemed to settle in the free agent frenzy, it looked like the only move the Blue Jackets were going to make was signing long-time NHL defenseman, Erik Gudbranson. We now know that wasn’t the case, but at the time it was viewed with mixed emotions. However, any trepidation that Blue Jackets fans may have had about the signing was almost immediately forgotten less than 12 hours later when they signed Johnny Gaudreau, who is without a doubt the biggest free-agent signing in team history.

While there has been a plethora of talk and speculation about the Gaudreau signing, let’s not forget about Gudbranson, who will be a little more impactful than one may think at first glance.

What Hole Does Gudbranson Fill?

Maybe the better question is, what holes does Gudbranson fill?

First, he is a 30-year-old, veteran defenseman with 11 seasons of NHL experience. He’s a pure defensive defenseman with a big body, standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 225 pounds. Those qualities fit the Blue Jackets’ needs to improve on their performance last season.

“He was our number one target,” Kekalainen said after the signing. “Our problem is not scoring goals […] we just need to keep the puck out of our net and this guy can defend, he’s a penalty killer, and he’s got size and strength, and toughness, and grit, and leadership.”

Related: Blue Jackets’ Historic Offseason Will Make More Sense Later

The oldest Blue Jacket defenseman to suit up last season was Vladislav Gavrikov, who was the ripe old age of 25 years old. While it feels like Zach Werenski has been around forever, he is still under the quarter-century mark.

Most of the other defenders on the roster are known for their offensive abilities, which is in stark contrast to the ghosts of Blue Jackets’ past. Adam Boqvist and Jake Bean are perfect examples of offense-first defensemen who were pushed around quite a bit in the defensive end last season. Even Werenski is still trying to adjust to being a legitimate two-way defenseman while still skewing over to the offensive end of that spectrum. On last year’s roster, Gavrikov was the only guy who was bringing a strong defensive presence. Now, Gudbranson adds to that.

The Blue Jackets Overpaid for Gudbranson

You may be thinking: If Gudbranson checks so many boxes on the Jackets’ wish list, then why would some people be critical of signing him? Well, this one comes down to the dollars.

The contract links Gudbranson to the Blue Jackets for the next four years at a cap hit of $4 million. For a defenseman that has never scored more than 17 points in a season and is on the wrong side of 30, this amount is a little high for a little too long. Kekalainen addressed that concern.

Erik Gudbranson Calgary Flames
Erik Gudbranson with the Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“[In restricted free agency] we pay for their points, their ice time, and other statistics,” Kekalainen said. “When you get to unrestricted free agency you pay for the intangibles too. That’s what this guy brings. It’s the price of doing business and the market dictates that and if you want a guy, there’s a price of doing business and we got it done.”

With the statistics involved, ideally, $2.5-3.5 million would have been a more team-friendly salary and one that I don’t think many would have been upset about, but that is the price of the open market. I’d say the deal looks good from a roster perspective, and from a money perspective, it definitely looked better in the grand scheme of their cap situation pre-Gaudreau.

Four years is a long time. Between now and the end of that deal there are a bunch of big contracts that set to be signed. We’ll see how that sizable cap-hit looks when they’re trying to find the money to give raises to the likes of Gavrikov, Boqvist, and Peeke on the back end, along with Jack Roslovic, Alexandre Texier, Kent Johnson, and Cole Sillinger up front. The contract has the potential to be the whipping boy for a lot of fans when the Blue Jackets have to make some tough personnel decisions. How it affects those decisions will have a huge impact on whether this deal is viewed as a success or not.

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