And the 2021 award for pettiest offseason move goes to… the Carolina Hurricanes. Call it pettiness, revenge, or just a good hockey move, the Hurricanes made a play for young Montreal Canadiens star Jesperi Kotkaniemi via an offer sheet, two years after the Canadiens made a similar ploy for Sebastian Aho.
Kotkaniemi’s offer sheet is a one-year signing worth $6,100,015. The Canadiens have seven days to match that offer to retain his services, but they’re pretty cash strapped as it currently stands. Even with Paul Byron and Shea Weber on injury reserve, the Canadiens don’t have enough cap space to match the mammoth offer sheet – they’re already over the cap as is. And to sprinkle a little extra pettiness on top, the Hurricanes added a cheeky $20 signing bonus to the Kotkaniemi offer sheet – the same number Aho wears on his back.
There are a million adjectives to describe the delicious layers behind this move, and there will be ramifications on both teams whether or not the Canadiens match it. They can keep the former third-overall pick by matching the offer, or they can agree to let Carolina sign him and receive a first- and third-round pick as compensation. Either way, the Hurricanes have forced the Canadiens’ hand, and have put them in an amusingly troublesome position.
Hurricanes Hold the Power Position
Kotkaniemi is not a $6-million player. The Canadiens and Hurricanes both know this. While Aho’s 2019 offer sheet was easily matched by the Hurricanes because of its fair value, this is a straight gut punch to the Canadiens, who are going to have to either part ways with their 21-year-old Finnish sniper, or halt all systems by matching it.
All trolling aside, the Hurricanes have put themselves in a pretty good spot on the hockey side of things. Firstly, they’re making a power statement – they’re not to be messed with. If the Canadiens match, ‘Canes fans can laugh that they got their sweet revenge for the Aho offer sheet and put a thorn in general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin’s side. But if they don’t match it, and elect to take the Hurricanes’ two draft picks instead, Kotkaniemi will be a Hurricane.
GM Don Waddell has been in the market for a forward this offseason, and has been clinging tightly to his wallet as the summer has progressed. Letting Dougie Hamilton walk, as well as saving some extra change by completely re-working his goaltending position, has afforded him the cap space to target some of the bigger fish out there. But could Kotkaniemi be the right guy?
He’s young – he only has three seasons under his belt, having been brought into the NHL immediately after being drafted – a move many questioned at the time, and more question today. He was a somewhat off-the-board pick when he was drafted at third overall, but seemed to silence those doubts in his rookie year, scoring 34 points and playing center in the Canadiens’ middle-six at just 18 years old.
He’s struggled since, however. His production plummeted the following season, and he spent a good stretch of 2019-20 playing for the AHL’s Laval Rocket. He rebounded decently last season, scoring 20 points in 56 games and adding eight more in 19 playoff games. He’s a good player – certainly with high potential – who just hasn’t had a steady path of development. The Hurricanes hope their young core, culture of accountability, and a few Finnish friends can be the right environment for him.
So the Hurricanes kind of win in this situation, regardless of outcome. It’s a hefty price to pay for an unproven player like Kotkaniemi, but they would get the forward they’re looking for – a shifty player with great puck skills who can play center or wing, and they get to stick it to Bergevin and the Canadiens in the process.
If the deal goes through, Kotkaniemi can play on any of the Hurricanes’ top three lines. He would probably be better used on the wing, where he can simplify his game and allow the Hurricanes’ strong center depth in Aho, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal to assist him.
“Jesperi Kotkaniemi accepted our offer. He wants to come to Carolina… He sees the core we’ve built here and he wants to be a part of that. We’re proud, but there’s still a waiting period. When you make an offer like that, we saw a vulnerable position. The offer, with the compensation and the core we have, we realized that it was the best chance we had to get the player.”GM Don Waddell on the Kotkaniemi offer sheet, mirroring comments made in 2019 by Bergevin after the Aho offer sheet
It’s entirely possible he gets a shot on the top line with Aho and Teuvo Teravainen. Who wouldn’t want to see the three Finns wreak havoc together? Kotkaniemi also brings versatility in that he can easily sub into the center position if the Hurricanes run into injury problems. And for Hurricanes fans, it’s finally some refreshing, exciting news after an offseason marred with head-scratching decisions.
Canadiens May Be Better Off by Moving On
For the Canadiens, there’s no excitement, only despair. On top of having to maneuver their cap situation, they’ll be handcuffed next year as well, after his one year is up. To make a qualifying offer to Kotkaniemi then will be north of $6-million, as he’ll still be a restricted free agent (RFA). If the Canadiens choose not to qualify him, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent (UFA).
From Montreal’s perspective, Bergevin and company should have had a bridge deal done with Kotkaniemi long ago. Not that this kind of spicy move could have been predicted, but because should the Canadiens match, they’ll have to pay Kotkaniemi more money in one year than he probably would have made in two.
They’ll also need to drop a contract or two to accommodate his new deal. After signing Mike Hoffman and David Savard to multi-year deals, they remain over the salary cap. And with the suddenness of this move, the Canadiens may be better off just moving on from their budding star and settling with the draft picks. When thinking long-term, there’s just no way they can realistically match it unless they’re super in love with the player and willing to shift the whole philosophy of the team around him.
The last time an offer sheet wasn’t matched was in 2007 when the Edmonton Oilers poached Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks for a trio of draft picks. But the circumstances behind this offer sheet make it extremely difficult for Bergevin to match.
Bergevin poked the bear with the Aho offer sheet in 2019. By front-loading the contract, he attempted to expose the Hurricanes’ reputation of being stingy and not paying out their players. But owner Tom Dundon provided, and the Hurricanes came out of it with a great contract for Aho. Evidently, that wasn’t enough for Hurricanes brass. This move to poach Kotkaniemi is a savvy push for revenge, and the $20 signing bonus tells you they had no intention of hiding it.
Kotkaniemi may be taking the Hurricanes to the bank, but Waddell and company are laughing all the way, because revenge sure is sweet.
Matt Cosman is a Sheridan College print journalism graduate from Oakville, Ontario. I’ve been with THW since 2019 covering the Carolina Hurricanes, one of my favorite childhood teams. When I’m not in my hockey bubble you can probably catch me jamming out on the piano or losing money at the poker tables.