Jesperi Kotkaniemi has experienced more than most players throughout the first four seasons of his young career. He found himself at the center of the offseason drama between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes last offseason, with the Hurricanes getting back at the Canadiens for offer sheeting their star forward Sebastian Aho a couple of seasons prior by acquiring Kotkaniemi via offer sheet last August (while having a lot of fun on social media during the process). It was the first successful offer sheet signing in the NHL since 2007.
A lot of Hurricanes fans were puzzled in March when general manager Don Waddell doubled down by signing the Finnish center to an eight-year extension with an average annual value of $4.82 million despite a relatively underwhelming season up to that point. The contract extension confirmed that the organization wanted Kotkaniemi to be the second-line center of the future in Raleigh. Now, with center Vincent Trocheck signing with the New York Rangers, there are big expectations facing the 22-year-old center as we near the start of the 2022-23 NHL season.
Underwhelming 2021-22 Campaign
Kotkaniemi finished his fourth season in the NHL with 29 points (12 goals and 17 assists) in 66 games played throughout the regular season. His postseason play left a lot to be desired as he finished with two points (zero goals and two assists) in 14 games. He did show flashes of great play at times throughout the season, as well as set a career-high in goals and shooting percentage with 12 goals and a shooting percentage of 14.8. The Hurricanes will need him to be more consistent this season if he intends to fill the gap and become a solid option within the top-six.
Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell spoke to media about Kotkaniemi’s role expanding in the future after announcing his extension in March.
“Jesperi has shown us just how high his ceiling can be through his skill and work ethic, and that he is a great fit with our young core,” said Waddell. “He is still just 21 years old, and we are confident his role in our organization will continue to expand in the years to come.”
Can Kotkaniemi Meet Expectations?
This will arguably be the most important year of Kotkaniemi’s career due to the expectations facing him to fill the hole at center on the second line. It’s not the first time he’s been asked to rise to the occasion; he had a very successful rookie campaign for Montreal after being selected with the third overall pick in the first round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He became an immediate scoring option for the Canadiens as an 18-year-old, and although it was a very tumultuous three years in Montreal, he was a key contributor during their run to the Stanley Cup Final in the 2020-21 season.
The main difference between what he was asked to do in Montreal and what Carolina is currently asking him to do is his role. He mainly saw action in Montreal as the third option at center, whereas the Hurricanes need him to make the jump to the second line this season and for the foreseeable future. If he can bottle up the flashes of great play he’s shown throughout his career and produce at a high level consistently, I believe he can rise to the occasion and become a solid option within the top-six in Raleigh.
Hurricanes’ Alternative Options
Should Kotkaniemi fail to produce at a consistent level early in the season, Carolina has a couple of options to fill the hole at the second-line center position. Forward Martin Necas recently re-signed with Carolina and would be a strong backup option to fill the gap should he be asked to. The Hurricanes could also call upon forward Jack Drury should he receive the call-up before the season and have a strong start to his career in Raleigh. While I think it would be a stretch to expect Drury to make that quick of a jump, I believe Necas could be the long-term answer for Carolina to backup Sebastian Aho if Kotkaniemi is unable to meet expectations.
Hot Start Would Be Huge
Kotkaniemi must get off to a hot start to quiet some of the noise surrounding his recent struggles. With a hot start to the 2022-23 campaign, I believe he could be a consistent scoring threat within the Hurricanes’ top-six all season long. Just seeing a couple go in the net early in the season and creating solid chemistry with his new linemates could go a long way for him to become the long-term answer at second-line center. We should have a good idea by the end of this season whether or not the contract extension was a great move or a questionable decision by the Hurricanes’ front office.
Growing up a huge sports fan Mack has always had a passion for writing about sports. The Water Valley, MS native covers the Carolina Hurricanes for THW. A graduate of the University of Mississippi, Mack also enjoys running and playing golf. Follow him on twitter @MackGordon0