Canadiens Face Lose-Lose Situation if Kotkaniemi Leaves

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is in position to lose much more than just Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Carolina Hurricanes. The ball is very much in Bergevin’s court after Kotkaniemi signed the Hurricanes’ $6.1 million offer sheet, but his options are exceptionally limited if he wants to come out of this unscathed. Spoiler alert: He won’t.

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

Ultimately, it comes down to whether Bergevin is willing to put the Canadiens through salary-cap hell, by overpaying Kotkaniemi. If he does, the hope would be that Kotkaniemi breaks through this coming season as the second-line center the Habs need, in which case it might even be worth it. That’s obviously the best-case scenario. It’s an unlikely one, though.

Bridge too Far for Bergevin?

Considering the Canadiens had reportedly only been willing to go as high as $2.5 million per year for Kotkaniemi, the difference conceivably speaks to a bridge too far for Bergevin to cross. After all, Bergevin has failed up to now to express a desire to deploy Kotkaniemi as the team’s second-line center for this coming season, even in spite of a lack of really anyone else to fill the role following the departure of Phillip Danault.

That’s kind of like finding yourself stuck in a fire because you can’t find the emergency exit, when the front entrance is completely free and clear. It’s literally the first place anyone would logically look.

True, chances are good this is simply a negotiation tactic, with Kotkaniemi obviously having been waiting for a second contract before signing the offer sheet. However, if you’re familiar with Bergevin as Habs GM, you’ve probably seen this play out before, with Alex Galchenyuk, who was similarly drafted as a center at No. 3 overall in 2012, six years before Kotkaniemi.

Kotkaniemi vs. Galchenyuk

Bergevin consistently downplayed Galchenyuk’s ability, especially in contract years. It usually worked too, at least in terms of getting him to sign cost-effective deals. Helping him develop into the center they drafted? Not really.

Alex Galchenyuk
Ex-Montreal Canadiens center Alex Galchenyuk – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To be fair, unlike Galchenyuk, Kotkaniemi has consistently been played at center over the last three seasons. He arguably hasn’t been put in a position to succeed though, with a revolving door of linemates. For example, Nick Suzuki was deployed on two different lines that totaled over 100 minutes in ice time last season (133:37 and 248:57). Kotkaniemi’s most common line, with Jonathan Drouin and Tyler Toffoli, only played 85:53 together.

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True, part of that is as a result of the injuries the Canadiens suffered through last season, with Drouin last playing in mid-April, for example. However, there comes a point at which the Canadiens have to show confidence in Kotkaniemi from game to game. Theoretically, that point was going to be this season, before fate, or karma to be honest, stepped in.

Revisiting the Aho Offer Sheet

Ultimately, the situation in which Bergevin finds himself was avoidable. He never really had to sign Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet. Remember, that was back in 2019, when the Canadiens just barely missed out on a playoff spot by two points, with a lineup featuring Max Domi, who scored a career-high 72 points scored, Danault and Kotkaniemi all at center. Nick Suzuki was also on his on way.

Carolina Hurricanes Sebastian Aho
Carolina Hurricanes forward Sebastian Aho – (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker, File)

Even then, by simply offer-sheeting Aho, Bergevin seemed to suggest he didn’t have confidence in Kotkaniemi despite it being a single season into his career. Maybe it was a case of him having seen this movie before, with Galchenyuk failing to pan out to the degree everyone had hoped. It’s more than that though, with Bergevin’s five first-round picks no longer with the organization. Kotkaniemi would make six of his first seven (Ryan Poehling).

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It should come as little surprise, considering he’s a second-round pick, but the Canadiens had a chance to pick Aho back in 2015. Instead, they went with defenseman Noah Juulsen, who got claimed off waivers by the Florida Panthers last season. That in effect encapsulates Bergevin’s dilemma. If he fails to match the Hurricanes’ offer, he either:

  • Lets Kotkaniemi go to greener pastures where he has a better chance at developing into the player he was drafted to become or
  • Watches as Kotkaniemi fails to develop into a top-six forward, despite the change in scenery.

In the case of the former, Bergevin will be that guy, the GM who let one of his only successful draft picks go for next to nothing. In the case of the latter, Bergevin will just be the GM who had two shots at a No. 3 overall pick and whiffed on both attempts. There’s not really a good outcome, although everyone should compassionately hope for Option 1, simply because Kotkaniemi arguably deserves better than he’s been given up to now.

As such, no one should be directing the blame for this mess at Kotkaniemi. This is a mess of Bergevin’s own making. Sure, the Hurricanes’ offer sheet was petty, but it was their right. More importantly, it was about as expected as traffic jam during rush hour. The only unexpected aspect is that the Hurricanes didn’t wait for Suzuki to hit restricted free agency next summer to pull this.

Bergevin Needs to Look in Mirror

Thank God for small miracles, I suppose, but truth be told, if Bergevin matches the offer sheet, he’ll be putting the Habs’ ability to comfortably get his No. 1 center in Suzuki under contract in serious doubt. As a result, it makes no fiscal sense to sign Kotkaniemi, who has a career high of 34 points, to as much money as the ‘Canes have (unless it’s to get back at the Habs and ensure there’s little chance they match it). The irony of course is the Canadiens would probably be in some form of salary-cap hell right now had they successfully gotten Aho under contract back then.

With that in mind, there’s only one good possible outcome for Bergevin here, and it involves him biting the bullet and matching the Hurricanes’ offer. If Kotkaniemi becomes that second-line center the Habs needed heading into 2021-22, it will all be worth it. It’s still inherently unlikely for the simple reason that, before he takes that leap, Bergevin will have to take a cold, hard look in the mirror and ask himself how much confidence he has, really, in his ability to draft and then develop stars. It’s not looking good.

Marc Bergevin Montreal Canadiens
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That’s the kicker, isn’t it? If Kotkaniemi stays and doesn’t progress significantly, Bergevin would be left holding the bag, having to pay a(nother) failure of a high draft pick north of $6 million just to qualify him next season. Sure, Kotkaniemi can be a late bloomer, but how long until Bergevin cuts his losses? Considering he can take first and third-round picks as compensation now? Probably a few days in all likelihood. It’s a fair deal. He far from escapes this smelling like roses, though.

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