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Columbus Blue Jackets Best and Worst Free Agent Signings

COlumbus Blue Jackets free agent signings
Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s 2022 summer series, exploring the best and worst free agent signings for each NHL team of the post-lockout, salary cap era. With this past offseason seeing some big splashes (and potential gambles) like Johnny Gaudreau, Claude Giroux, John Klingberg, and others, it’s time to take a look at how teams have boosted and stunted their progress in recent history. Today, we look at the history of Columbus Blue Jackets free agent signings.

Columbus Blue Jackets Free Agent Hits and Misses

Why, have you heard something? Yeah, we’re not including the two big signings that happened this season, despite the genuine possibility of both showing up on this list eventually. Johnny Gaudreau and Erik Gudbranson should play a game for the Jackets before we leap to judgment, either way. So, them aside, who are the best and worst Columbus Blue Jackets free agent signings?

Best Signing: Sam Gagner

Sam Gagner played in Columbus for just a single season, and BOY was he worth it! Gagner may be a veteran fourth-liner with the Detroit Red Wings, but with Columbus in 2016-17? He was… a veteran fourth-liner. A miserable season with the Philadelphia Flyers left him looking for a home. His scoring was way down – eight goals and 16 points in 56 games – and despite his good defensive game, without goals, he was easily overlooked. It wasn’t a great way to end a three-year, $4.8 million per deal.
Gagner swallowed his pride and took a massive pay cut in return for a redemption arc. That’s what makes him the best of the Columbus Blue Jackets free agent signings… value. The Blue Jackets signed him for one season at $650,000. He started – and mostly stayed – on the fourth line except for one little detail: they let him out for the power-play. In less than 14 minutes of average ice time, Gagner scored 18 goals and 50 points in 81 games. Of those, eight goals and 18 points were scored a man up. He was the fifth-highest scorer on the team on the cheapest contract. That’s a darn fine deal – even if it’s just for one year.

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Best Signing Honourable Mention: Vaclav Prospal

Vinny Prospal helped the team in a slightly less concrete way than on the scoreboard. Not to sell his scoring short, though! He did score 16 goals and 55 points after he signed in 2011-12. That was good for second on the team, behind Rick Nash. And losing Nash the next year is one thing Prospal helped get the team through. Yes, one of the top Blue Jackets free agent signings was an old vet who came back.
He was the ultimate journeyman player, notching seven different teams in his 16-year NHL career – a couple of them twice. He could have played for any team after his first year with the Blue Jackets. Sure, he was well into the “wily veteran” stage of his career, but add that production and his $2.5 million deal was excellent value. Possibly the best part of that deal was his signing for the same amount the next year. For a fan base who felt burned by their star leaving, that was a salve.

Worst signing: Riley Nash

Now, don’t get us wrong. Riley Nash is a player with some value, especially in 2017-18 when he scored 15 goals and 41 points for the Boston Bruins. That’s solid depth scoring for a middle-six forward, and he was only making $900K per year. There were plenty of teams bidding for his services, and Columbus won with a three-year, $2.75 million offer.
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Unfortunately, the goals and points from 2017-18 weren’t just career highs. They were more than Nash would score in the duration of his contract with Columbus. In three years, Nash scored 10 times and had 33 total points. He was flipped to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a conditional sixth-round pick. That’s not the end result that anyone had in mind. That makes him the worst of the Columbus Blue Jackets free agent signings.

Worst Signing Honourable Mention: Nathan Horton

More a hard-luck story than a bad signing, the Nathan Horton contract is still an example of hope over sense. Horton was a physical specimen – 6’2″ 239 lbs – and was happy to use it. But his physical play was already catching up with his body. That he had suffered two serious concussions in two years was bad enough. Add to that recurring back issues and the seven-year, $37 million deal looked like a higher risk than most teams could stomach.

But that’s why he signed in Columbus. The history of the Blue Jackets free agent signings is brief and inglorious – until this year – and they wanted to make a mark. If Horton remained healthy, even for a few years, this deal could have paid off handsomely, probably. He chose to leave both his previous teams, the Bruins and Florida Panthers. Would that pattern have continued in Columbus? Maybe, maybe not. Columbus was the first destination he chose for himself after nine years, so that may have gone better.

The last year of Horton’s career was his first with the Blue Jackets. He played just 36 games, scoring five goals and 19 points.


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