Canadiens-Hurricanes Offer Sheet Game Puts Kotkaniemi in Tough Situation

Jesperi Kotkaniemi was tendered a $6.1 million offer sheet by the Carolina Hurricanes, and seven days later, almost to the final minute of the deadline, the Montreal Canadiens declined match it. Kotkaniemi, who signed the offer sheet, did nothing wrong in doing so; with Montreal offering a bridge deal at two years $2.5 million per year, the Hurricanes’ offer of $6.1 million guaranteed a significant payday. This payday, however, could be the downfall of Kotkaniemi, who was just a pawn in a much bigger game played by the competing clubs.

Canadiens Enticed Aho with an Offer Sheet

The offer sheet for Kotkamiemi comes as no surprise. In 2019, the Canadiens tendered an offer sheet to the Hurricanes’ young forward, Sabastian Aho, for five years at $42.27 million, an average annual value (AAV) of $8.454 million. The offer sheet also contained a signing bonus of $21 million – the maximum allowed. This signing bonus would need to be paid in full in the first calendar year of the contract. The signing bonus is what the Canadiens believed would allow them to obtain the young center, and scare the Hurricanes away from matching. That wasn’t the case.

Morning Skate newsletter Click To Subscribe

Within hours of the announcement of the offer sheet, Hurricanes general manager (GM) Don Waddell held a press conference and stated that they would match the offer. He stated that, at the time, he didn’t know if he would take the full seven days to match, but if he didn’t, the Canadiens could sign more players; he then smirked and said, “Maybe I don’t want to help them right now.” This should have been the end of it, but two seasons later, the Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi was a restricted free agent (RFA), and it became Carolina’s turn to make their move.

Hurricanes Tender Kotkaniemi an Offer Sheet

The Hurricanes made their move by tendering Kotkaniemi with a one-year $6.1 million offer sheet, which of course, Kotkaniemi signed. The kicker to this one was the signing bonus of $20. That’s right, $20, not $20 million. Why is that significant? Well, it’s the same number Aho wears; it could be just a coincidence, or truly be a shot at the Canadiens for their offer sheet two seasons prior.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens
Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The offer seemed a bit unrealistic for a player with 22 career goals in 171 games, but he is now the third highest-paid player on the Hurricanes. Kotkaniemi is also a center, a position the Hurricanes are deep in. Wouldn’t it have been more prudent for them to offer sheet Brady Tkachuk or Brock Boeser, wingers that could significantly improve the team? Granted, these wingers would cost a lot more than $6.1 million, and their compensation could set the Hurricanes back for years in terms of drafting; they also are not members of the Canadiens, and their team didn’t try to offer sheet any of the Hurricanes players. The compensation for Kotkaniemi was a first and third-round draft pick, which the Canadiens received when they decided not to match the offer.

Kotkaniemi’s Future in Carolina

Waddell and Bergevin continue doing their jobs improving their teams. Bergevin has already replaced Kotkaniemi with Christian Dvorak, who he acquired from the Arizona Coyotes for a first-round draft pick in 2022 and a second-round draft pick in 2024. Waddell has already informed the media that Kotkaniemi will probably start on the wing and not at center; this will hopefully, for Kotkaniemi’s sake, put him in a position to shine.

In Montreal, playing the wing would have hurt his development. Is that going to be the same in Carolina, or do they want him to be a winger? Before being drafted, he did play wing Finland, but he was drafted as a center and spent the last three seasons developing as a such. It does make sense to put him on the wing to start; this way, he can play at least top-nine minutes. He would be on the fourth line as a center, and no one wants a $6 million man on the fourth line.

Kotkaniemi’s Contract Could Hurt Him

Kotkaniemi’s contract is only for one season, but it’s a huge cap hit for a player who hasn’t shown the potential to deserve it yet. The contract puts him up in the same category as Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon – only $200,000 less, to be exact. Granted, MacKinnon is on a team-friendly deal that was signed just before he broke out, and maybe Kotkaniemi will break out as well. However, if he doesn’t and continues to play like he did in Montreal, his future could be in trouble.

Waddell was asked if another deal was in place at a lower AAV for a longer-term; he answered by saying the deal was for only one year, and they will see what happens. It would be best if we didn’t look too deeply into this comment because, for one, they wouldn’t have even been able to discuss a future deal until Kotkaniemi was officially a Hurricane. Another caveat is that they can’t sign him to a new deal until January anyway, even if a deal was in place.

This will certainly put a lot of pressure on Kotkaniemi to succeed, because not only does he have to prove he is worth his contract, but he has to play for one in the future at hopefully close to the same amount. Another wrinkle in this deal is that he is an RFA next season, and unless a deal is in place beforehand, his qualifying offer will be no less than $6.1 million. The team does have options to lower it, but not by much. If Kotkaniemi struggles, he may not get an offer in January from Waddell, and if he doesn’t pick his game up in the second half of the season, Carolina could just let him walk as a free agent, which would be bad for Kotkaniemi.

Kotkaniemi Could be Only Loser in this Game

In the offer sheet chess match played out by the Canadiens and Hurricanes, the only piece in the game that stands a reasonable chance of losing is Kotkaniemi. Carolina and Montreal will keep moving pieces to improve their teams, signing players, letting players go, and so forth. Kotkaniemi, however, is betting on his future; he signed a hefty contract that – at this time – he probably doesn’t deserve, and he has one year to prove he’s worth at least half of it.

If Kotkaniemi doesn’t play up to his contract, or is close to a reasonable future contract, he could be left out in the cold searching for a contract from any team. It wouldn’t make any sense for Waddell to have a backdoor contract ready for a longer-term deal at a lower AAV for a player who hasn’t proven he can play to the expectations of their contract. This is not to say Kotkaniemi won’t succeed. His potential is still high – he is only 21, and he will be playing for an outstanding coach in Rod Brind’Amour.

Waddell and Bergevin are playing a game of chess. The players are the pawns, and Kotkaniemi could be the pawn that gets sacrificed, unless he can prove he’s worth not only being drafted third overall, but also a $6.1 million contract. All this pressure on a 21-year-old, just so one team can get back at another for something that happened two seasons ago.


Sign up for our regular 'Habs Newsletter' for all the latest.
Sign up for our regular 'Hurricanes Newsletter' for all the latest.