Hurricanes Shore Up Forward Depth With Domi & Kotkaniemi Deals

As the days went by leading up to the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline, the Carolina Hurricanes were in a peculiar position. I recently wrote about this hellacious stretch of hockey from mid-March on that they would have to navigate, and the early returns have not gone well. The team is currently on their first four-game losing streak of the season, with a couple disheartening losses to Metropolitan Division rivals they’re fighting with for the top spot.

The most recent game against the New York Rangers exposed perhaps the team’s biggest flaw, in their inability to consistently put the puck in the net when the top players aren’t locked in. The team suffered a 43-save shutout at the hands of the Rangers… and not to their Vezina-frontrunner starter, Igor Shesterkin; it was to backup Alexandar Georgiev, who, even with that performance, has a sub-.900 save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) barely under 3.00 on the season.

With almost no cap space and lacking a first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, the Hurricanes were in a tricky position when it came to making any meaningful moves. However, as they watched their fellow Eastern Conference Stanley Cup contenders load up ahead of the postseason, the team made their move to try and keep pace by adding some talent to their own group that should provide a bit of an offensive punch. Max Domi, a 27-year-old playmaking forward and the son of longtime Toronto Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi, is headed to Carolina to help bolster a struggling offense.

After general manager Don Waddell went on record saying nobody on the current roster would be moved out, a deal like this effectively signaled that the team would be done on the trade market (not to mention the part that the move reportedly just got into the queue under the 3:00 EST deadline). However, that wouldn’t be the only move the team made on deadline day, as they also locked down a young piece that is expected to play a key part in the next decade of Hurricanes hockey. So, today, we’ll break it all down: who Carolina got, what they gave up, who’s sticking around for the long haul, and where today’s transactions leave them in the grand scheme of this 2021-22 NHL season.

Trade Breakdown: Hurricanes Add Top-Nine Forward, NCAA Defender

Despite Waddell’s tendency to target players with term on their contracts over pure rentals, Domi falls into the latter category as a pending unrestricted free agent (UFA). Still, with a $5.3 million cap hit, the Florida Panthers had to be involved for cap purposes, but even that took only a relatively small cost to entice them and ensure the deal could go through for the Hurricanes (which I’m a tad surprised by, seeing as Florida is a fellow Eastern Conference contender). All told, the Columbus Blue Jackets are retaining 50 percent of Domi’s salary, while Florida and Carolina are evenly splitting the remaining 50 percent. The Panthers received Egor Korshkov, currently in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), and a sixth-round pick from Columbus for their trouble.

Max Domi Columbus Blue Jackets
Carolina Hurricanes forward Max Domi with his former team, the Columbus Blue Jackets (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Columbus received Aidan Hreschuk, a Carolina third-round pick last summer. The left-shot defender doesn’t have huge upside, but he does possess the potential to turn into an NHL player someday. This largely stems from his skating and ability as a puck-mover from the back end. He is likely to continue developing at the NCAA level with Boston College for the next three years, then will likely need at least a year at the American Hockey League level before he’s ready to impact the Blue Jackets’ roster. Though it’s not a huge return, this deal can still be seen as a win for Columbus. Domi was likely gone in the offseason, and they got a player who could help them someday down the road.

As for the centerpiece of the deal, Domi was selected 12th overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, and the forward has had an interesting career to this point. After a great age-20 rookie season where he posted 18 goals and 52 points while finishing in the top-10 for the Calder Trophy, he struggled the next two years in the desert. He was sent to the Montreal Canadiens in the summer of 2018, and it seemed like his breakout arrived the next season, where he set career highs across the board with 28 goals, 44 assists, and 72 points. Unfortunately, the following season was another drastic downturn in production, and he was shipped off to Columbus before hitting restricted free agency after the 2019-20 season. The Blue Jackets gave him a two-year, $5.3 million annual average value (AAV) contract.

Columbus ranks 22nd in the NHL in goals per game this season, and the Hurricanes (who rank fourth) are banking on Domi adapting quickly and being able to replicate, if not improve upon, his production this season. The Hurricanes are a fit for the speedy forward’s playing style, as he’s a pesky, high-compete type of player who can create havoc on the forecheck, make plays off the rush, and create offense between the dots. Even if his production doesn’t take a significant step forward, he’s still registered 32 points in 59 games this season; that’s good for sixth-best on his new team, ahead of top nine mainstays like Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas.

While the Hurricanes have really struggled to put the puck in the net, and Domi leans playmaker over scorer, his hands and shiftiness in tight areas should help open things up for some of the struggling pieces in the Carolina forward group. It’ll be fascinating to see where head coach Rod Brind’Amour slots him in initially, as the forward lines have been mixed and matched a ton during the recent slide, but I think the natural fit is on the second line where the injured Jordan Martinook had been slotted. Adding this level of playmaker alongside Vincent Trocheck and Necas, who have been highly inconsistent, could do wonders to shore up a top-six that’s been far too reliant on Sebastian Aho’s top line.

If that does end up being the lineup, it’s hard to see the move not making the Hurricanes better. Trocheck and Domi would be highly frustrating to play against, and could open up a lot of space for Necas to operate. That would allow Seth Jarvis to play on the fourth line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, at least until Martinook returns. On paper, that’s a lot of threats in one lineup, and the Hurricanes should be seen as a threat to score no matter which line is on the ice.

Although Domi has just four power-play points on the season (all assists), his arrival could also spark a second unit that has not held up it’s end of the bargain this season. When the top unit of Aho, Trocheck, Andrei Svechnikov, Teuvo Teravainen, and Tony DeAngelo has failed to convert, it usually spells the end of the man advantage. It’s not like there isn’t skill on the second unit, but the puck retrieval isn’t nearly at the same level of the first unit, and it seems like there’s a lack in crisp, quick puck movement. Domi can help in both of these areas, with his quickness helping with the former and playmaking ability the latter.

Related: Carolina Hurricanes Acquire Forward Max Domi from Blue Jackets

Finally, the Hurricanes also acquired defenseman Tyler Inamoto, a 22-year-old former fifth-round pick by the Panthers. He’s finishing up his college career at the University of Wisconsin, where he has often been paired alongside Columbus 2021 first-rounder Corson Ceulemans. Ceulemans leads Wisconsin in points, and is known as a roving, offensive defenseman, while Inamoto was the stay-at-home guy who allowed his partner to jump into the rush. I have had very limited viewings of the fifth-year senior, but he seems to have a rock-solid understanding of stick and body positioning and made a few clever plays on the breakout that almost seemed surprising for a guy with almost no scoring production in college. Still, he’s largely a throw-in on the deal, and it’ll be worth watching to see if he signs with Carolina.

Kotkaniemi Locked Down Long-Term

Meanwhile, the Hurricanes made another big splash on deadline day, but this one came off the trade market. Kotkaniemi, Domi’s former teammate in Montreal, has had a very nice debut season since coming over after the summer’s offer sheet, and the team showed its faith in his progress by rewarding him with an eight-year, $4.82 million AAV contract. Per Natural Stat Trick, his 1.05 goals per 60 (G/60) is second on the team, behind only Niederreiter, and his 1.81 points per 60 (P/60) ranks eighth (both stats amongst players who have appeared in at least eight games). This is especially impressive considering how little time he has spent in the top nine with offense-leaning linemates.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi Carolina Hurricanes
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Incidentally, Kotkaniemi’s stint in the Hurricanes’ top nine while the team was decimated with COVID-19 probably played a big role in the organization’s faith in him, leading to this long-term extension. In a 14-game stretch from Nov. 26 to Jan. 7, he posted 12 points with the increased role and ice time. If Trocheck, a pending UFA, leaves over the summer, the team has an in-house candidate to step right in. With the continued growth the 21-year-old is bound to experience under the leadership of head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the future remains bright for the Hurricanes down the middle of the ice. Kotkaniemi raved about his new team extensively after signing the extension, and his head coach echoed those sentiments, excited to have the young center locked down long term.

The Hurricanes will owe Kotkaniemi just $4 million in 2022-23, giving them around $22 million in cap room this upcoming offseason. That’s not a lot, considering Trocheck, Niederreiter, DeAngelo, Domi, Derek Stepan, and Ian Cole are all set to be UFAs, while Necas, Steven Lorentz, and Ethan Bear will get raises as restricted free agents (RFAs), too. The Hurricanes are going to have a lot of work to do this summer, and it’s going to be very interesting to see who comes and who goes. The team can’t keep everyone, but considering how close they are to a Stanley Cup, I’m sure they’ll be hungry to add a big piece or two where they can. Giving a back-loaded contract to Kotkaniemi, who could serve as the team’s 2C as soon as next season, is really helpful with this.

If Kotkaniemi develops the way the Hurricanes expect — and the cap begins to rise properly again over the coming years — this deal has a great chance to look like a steal in hindsight. Keep in mind, even if he plateaus a bit and becomes more of a defensively responsible third-line type, the Hurricanes have been paying Jordan Staal $6 million for years now; it hasn’t seemed to hamper them too badly. He will also have a no-trade list where he can submit a list of 10 teams he doesn’t want to be traded to, which kicks in for the last five seasons. On a day where the Hurricanes added for the now, they also made sure to lock down a piece that’s going to pay dividends until the end of the decade.

Did the Hurricanes Keep Pace in the Eastern Conference Arms Race?

Domi was a necessary piece to add to the fold, as the Eastern Conference really loaded up on trade deadline day. The Hurricanes have seen their Metropolitan Division lead shrink considerably over the last week, with the Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins now just three points behind them, although Carolina does still have one game in hand on each. The Penguins added a top-six scorer in Rickard Rakell, a player I long thought to be a great fit for as a finisher in the Hurricanes’ top six. He’ll instead reportedly play with Evgeni Malkin in the Steel City (from “Ranking all 32 NHL teams on their trade deadline performance”, The Athletic, 3/22/22) and make that lineup even more formidable.

Don Waddell Hurricanes
Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes General Manager (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Meanwhile, the Panthers look poised to make a real run at their first Stanley Cup, adding star Claude Giroux while shoring up their defense with Ben Chiarot and Robert Hagg. The loss of Aaron Ekblad looms large here (although he should return for the postseason), but they’re arguably the deepest team in the league already, and going to be a huge concern if the Hurricanes match up with them in the postseason. Their Floridian rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, added my top fit for Carolina in Brandon Hagel, along with some bottom-six depth in Riley Nash and Nick Paul. They’ll stay a factor until Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the rest of their loaded roster are no longer performing at the top of their respective positions.

Finally, even the Rangers had an impressive deadline day, adding another player I thought the Hurricanes would consider in veteran shutdown defender Justin Braun, along with two versatile forwards in Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte. Everyone the Hurricanes figure to be battling it out with in the postseason has improved, and I didn’t even mention Hampus Lindholm to the Boston Bruins or Marcus Johansson and Johan Larsson heading to the Washington Capitals. The East was already loaded. Now, it’s downright scary.

Kudos to Waddell for making a meaningful move with all the factors working against him on deadline day. Domi has just one goal in the last 31 games, which allowed him to be acquired for so cheap, but the ‘Canes are hoping a change of scenery sparks a big run from their newest player. Having him play to his talent level in the top nine instead of Martinook, who was always best suited for the fourth line, only stands to make the team better. Ultimately, though, this needs to have a ripple effect on the rest of the lineup. Aho, Svechnikov, and Teravainen have to get back to their regularly-take-over-games level, DeAngelo needs to re-acclimate quickly now that he’s back from injury, and, hopefully, the second line starts to… actually do something now. That may be harsh, but they’ve been invisible far too often this season.

This team can still make a deep run in the playoffs. They can win the Stanley Cup in 2022. However, things got a lot tougher on deadline day, and it’ll be fascinating to watch and see if the Hurricanes did enough to keep pace. The path to get to the Stanley Cup is an absolute murderer’s row, and a lot of things are going to have to break the right way, but that’s really how it is every postseason. You don’t win the hardest trophy to win in sports without a little luck going your way, even if it’s just a little injury fortune. Regardless, we’re going to start seeing playoff-level hockey from here on out, and we’ll learn very shortly who this Hurricanes team and their newest forward is going to be when all is said and done. It’s put up or shut up time.

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