Canadiens Won by Losing Kotkaniemi

It’s been nearly 18 months since Jesperi Kotkaniemi chose to sign an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes. Since then, there has been speculation as to why he would choose to leave, and if the Montreal Canadiens, then under the helm of former general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin, made the right choice in not matching.

Since the advent of the salary cap in 2004, there have been only 10 restricted free agents (RFAs) to sign an offer sheet. Of those, only two have not been matched. This means the Canadiens were the first team to not match one since 2007 when the Anaheim Ducks failed to match the Edmonton Oilers’ offer to Dustin Penner. The questions are simple, yet difficult to sort out. Are the Canadiens a better team without him? Have they been able to upgrade on him? Would he have been able to develop properly in Montreal, even if given good coaching and a great supporting cast like in Carolina? This is a look to attempt to answer those questions and put this drama to bed once and for all. 

A Carolina Hurricane Blows Kotkaniemi Off Course 

Coming off of a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Canadiens under Bergevin were entering what would be the shortest off-season in Canadiens history. It left very little time to negotiate with Kotkaniemi’s agent. At the time, the hope was for Kotkaniemi to be able to solve his consistency issues and step into the second-line center role behind Nick Suzuki who had emerged as the top center in the playoffs. This inconsistent play of Kotkaniemi’s caused negotiations for his first RFA contract to become difficult.  

 Related: Revisiting the Canadiens 2018 Draft Class 

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Instead, the former third overall pick chose to sign a one-year $6.1 million contract with the Hurricanes providing the Canadiens a 2021 first-round and 2021 third-round pick as compensation.  Soon after that, he was signed to an eight-year deal worth $4.82 million per season. In his time in Carolina, the 22-year-old has essentially been a fourth-line center. 

Canadiens Center of the Hurricane 

What happened that summer? Why did the Canadiens not match? Well, Jean-Charles Lajoie and Tony Marinaro of BPM Sports, a Montreal-based, French language station, have some answers.  

The Canadiens had a plan in place to handle the RFA’s deal if they could sign him. Once he signed his offer sheet with Carolina, that made the number known, $6.1 million. According to Lavoie, they were going to match, but Bergevin wanted to also have a long-term deal agreed to, which only the Habs, due to being his current team, could announce immediately. In this, Lavoie stated that the player’s agent never returned Bergevin’s call, which points to the fact that he wanted out. In the end, he got his contract with Carolina.

Fans need to keep in mind, that despite being young and untested, Kotkaniemi was a high pick, and is a proud athlete. So, it is quite possible that he felt underappreciated. With his yo-yoing to and from the American Hockey League (AHL), his benchings as well as his minimal role during the 2021 playoff run fed directly into that. The young center had also felt his development would improve under Rod Brind’Amour as well as due to having a chance to play with several highly skilled forwards in a more open offensive system. 

Rod Brind'Amour Carolina Hurricanes
Rod Brind’Amour, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Instead, the Habs used the first-round pick they gained in return to trade for Christian Dvorak and his $4.45 million cap hit from the Arizona Coyotes. Essentially, replacing Kotkaniemi’s production with Dvorak’s, but also adding in his defensive and faceoff skill sets. 

Canadiens Lucked Out 

Did the Canadiens dodge a bullet? It usually takes a prospect four to five years to fully realize their potential, and those that don’t do so in that time rarely ever meet it. For Kotkaniemi, the clock is about to strike midnight. In the first 21 games of the 2022-23 season, he has only two goals and four points, and while his underlying possession stats look acceptable, that level of production for someone that is supposed to be a top-six forward on a very strong Hurricanes squad is concerning. 

Looking at the situation now, would Canadiens’ fans rather have Kotkaniemi, or Dvorak and the eventual change in management that also provided them Kirby Dach in a later trade? Just with Dvorak, the Canadiens were better served as he provided support to Suzuki at center as well as likely being a good trade value option at the trade deadline for new GM Kent Hughes to use.

In Montreal, fans were concerned that Kotkaniemi was rushed into the NHL at 18 and should have been sent back to Finland for further development. Looking back, that may have been the best choice. In Carolina, he has been provided with optimal tools and opportunities, a strong coaching staff under Brind’amour, and high-quality offensively gifted linemates such as Andrei Svechnikov and Seth Jarvis. Soon after he was sent back to the fourth line, the rumor mill kicked into high gear, with hockey insiders such as Pierre LeBrun mentioning that the Hurricanes were looking to trade Kotkaniemi to make room for Bo Horvat. With that, and his eventual return to a fourth-line role, it doesn’t look as though the Canadiens should be upset that they were able to avoid the issues likely caused by his issues with development. 

In the end, the Hurricanes have a strong team that will contend for a Stanley Cup for a few seasons. However, as Kotkaniemi is unable to cement himself into their top-six, the gamble seemed to have not paid off for them. As for the Canadiens, they still have a quality trade chip, room to allow younger centers like Dach to grow, and don’t have to deal with eight years of high salary for a fourth-line player. Sometimes it takes more than shrewd management choices, sometimes luck plays a role in team building. No matter the reasons, right or wrong, Kotkaniemi didn’t feel he belonged in Montreal and wanted a fresh start, and his decisions in the end also helped the Canadiens.

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