Canadiens vs. Hurricanes Offer Sheet Battle: Pressure Falls on Kotkaniemi

A quiet August in the NHL, while most of the hockey world is on holiday, the Carolina Hurricanes signed Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a predatory offer sheet. The structure and salary are designed to provide the Hurricanes revenge for the Sebastian Aho offer sheet, but it’s also to try and pry away a young center.

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

What it does do, however, is place a heavy burden on Kotkaniemi to step up his play immediately.

Revenge

Hurricanes are retaliating at the Canadiens’ 2019 offer sheet of Aho, which was a rational, and some say, a far too reasonable offer of Aho.

In turn, the Hurricanes retaliate with a predatory overpayment that’s clearly more about revenge than it is to improve the team, because why would they offer sheet Kotkaniemi, who would be fourth on their centerman depth chart, when Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin is still unsigned and could have replaced much of what they lost in Dougie Hamilton.

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Why is it called an obvious retaliation? Back in 2019, the Hurricanes organization was publically pleased with the Aho contract, saying it was an easy choice to match the deal and were happy to avoid extended negotiations. However, this past weekend’s event demonstrates that the Kotkaniemi offer sheet is not just a signal to the NHL that they will protect their young assets by showing they will retaliate, but that they took the Aho signing very personally.

The evidence that it was personal is obvious. The $20 signing bonus (Aho’s number), the Carolina twitter account using google translate French to announce the signing, mocking the Canadiens Twitter account’s announcement of Aho’s signature. Even general manager Don Waddell quoting Marc Bergevin’s Aho press conference word for word. All of it makes it very clear, Carolina will decide how their young players are paid or moved, and any attempt to make their owner or franchise look weak will receive a retaliatory offer sheet mixed in with an adolescently worded form of media to punctuate the point, which fits in very well with the entertaining “Bunch of Jerks” brand they have cultivated. All of which, in of itself, is an effective tool.

The Contract

Kotkaniemi chose to sign the Hurricanes’ offer, a one-year deal valued at $6.1 million. If the Canadiens choose to decline to match that deal, they would receive Carolina’s first and third-round picks in 2022.

This has an impact on the qualifying offer (QO) for next season as well, as it must be 100 percent of the current deal, making it a $6.1 million offer, unless the Canadiens choose salary arbitration, then the QO can be as low as 85 percent of the deal ($5.185 million), allowing the Habs to retain his rights while they continue to negotiate. An added issue is that Bergevin was unable to trade the young center for the entire season, effectively giving him a full no-trade clause.

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There are also cap implications to be considered. Can the Habs be cap compliant at the start of the season if they match? According to Eric Engels, they can.

We checked with the Canadiens and they told us signing him would put them right up against the 10 per-cent threshold they can exceed the $81.5 million upper limit by during the off-season (despite public cap websites reporting they’d actually be close to $200,000 over), and they also said they could designate one of Shea Weber or Paul Byron to the long-term injured reserve list if need be

– Eric Engels

In his latest 31 Thoughts podcast, Elliotte Friedman said that Kotkaniemi and the Canadiens weren’t close on a deal (rumored to be around $2.5 million per season over two years). But Carolina is prepared to give him a long-term contract under the current one-year, $6.1 million deal.

Jesper Kotkaniemi Montreal Canadiens
Jesper Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

So this means that while the offer sheet was clearly vengeful, there is also a hockey purpose behind it. But it also means there is now a heavy burden for Kotkaniemi to live up to this deal and to earn a long-term deal.

Pressure if He Stays

If Bergevin chooses to match, this would make Kotkaniemi the second-highest paid forward behind franchise heart and soul player Brendan Gallagher. Putting pressure on Kotkaniemi to produce at that level.

He was to be penciled into the second-line center role and afforded more opportunities offensively with more offensively gifted linemates than he was used to playing with thus far, as well, more likely he was to be given a more consistent partner to line up with. The pressure to produce was already to be on the young center. The expectation from fans and media was more reasonable, as The Hockey Writers affiliated HabsUnfiltered podcast laid out the expectation of a 45 point season. That was when the expected salary was to be closer to $3 million.

Now, the pressure that Kotmaniemi will shoulder is a $6.1 million weight. The media and fans will demand he produces at that level, likely a 60 point range would satisfy the media. But the rabid fan base will demand he outplays and outproduces Nick Suzuki. That would be a very difficult task as Suzuki has become the team’s top center and has been far more capable of producing points in a top-six role.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There is also the perception that signing an offer sheet meant that he would rather leave Montreal. Most people who saw the news realize the business of hockey, that being offered as much as three times the expected salary is something anyone would want for their own salaries. However, the emotional side of fans would make them forget that rationale. They would be angry, hurt and upset at the news, and only a true breakout season would quiet their anger. That pressure on top of the already high expectations for Kotmaniemi will be nearly impossible to meet.   

Pressure if He Goes

If Bergevin chooses not to match the offer and Kotkaniemi joins the Hurricanes, the pressure will still be on Kotkaniemi. Yes, obviously, the media scrutiny in Carolina is far less than that of Montreal. Nevertheless, Canadian media will make this a storyline all season long, possibly longer.

The true pressure for the young center, however, will be on the ice. Becoming the third highest-paid player on the roster comes with the added responsibility to play at that level. After three seasons playing behind Suzuki and Phillip Danault in Montreal, as mentioned above, he was to be penciled into a larger role. However, in Carolina, he will be in competition with Vincent Trochek and Martin Necas to earn a top-six center role.

RALEIGH, NC – APRIL 8: Martin Necas #88 of the Carolina Hurricanes skates with the puck during an NHL game against the Florida Panthers on April 8, 2021 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images)

So far, Kotkaniemi has been unable to steal that role away in Montreal. If he is unable to do so in Carolina and must settle into his more familiar third-line role, that could be considered a failure and one that would cause some social media pages to erupt. Nevertheless, the head coach Rod Brind’Amour could mitigate that by providing him some power play time, but again, he would need to steal that away from more established players.

As mentioned, Carolina seems to have long-term plans for the young center, but without him having a break-out season where he finally breaks the 20 goal and 50 point plateaus all while playing consistently defensively, he will not have met the demands of his contract.

No matter what decision is made by Bergevin, Kotkaniemi choosing to take the deal was a smart business decision for him, providing himself with the best salary for next season. However, it also puts heavy pressure on the 21-year-old to play consistently at a level he hasn’t been able to meet thus far. Not only to justify his current deal but to prove himself for the next contract. Perception can be a reality not just for fans but for management as well. If the perception is he isn’t worth his deal, he may become a journeyman in the short term. This weekend proved one thing, Jesperi is betting on himself to prove he deserved to be the third overall pick in 2018 and truly become a core franchise player.


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