Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s extension is probably the biggest bit of business left for general manager Marc Bergevin this offseason. In some ways, for next offseason as well.
Even with Nick Suzuki poised to hit restricted free agency in 2022 as the team’s No. 1 center, negotiations with Kotkaniemi as the de facto No. 2 for now are incredibly important. In all likelihood, Kotkaniemi’s next deal will set the tone for negotiations with Suzuki.
Kotkaniemi vs. Suzuki
There’s no denying Suzuki will make more than Kotkaniemi. He’s worth significantly more, after all. However, if Bergevin gives Kotkaniemi too much it could adversely impact the team’s pay structure moving forward. Keep in mind this is a world in which the Canadiens have been linked to Jack Eichel, whose $10 million cap hit would certainly throw things out of whack especially regarding Suzuki’s second pro contract.
Perhaps for that reason alone, the Canadiens should steer clear of Eichel, unless of course Suzuki would be going back the other way. However, in such a scenario, they’d also be trading away the last season of Suzuki’s cost-effective entry-level contract. With both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi (and Alexander Romanov) on those cheap deals, Bergevin was able to successfully navigate around the flat $81.5 million salary cap last offseason and build a Stanley Cup contender, for all intents and purposes. In spite of Eichel’s clear superiority as a perennial Hart Memorial Trophy-caliber talent, acquiring him may not be worth it.
True, Kotkaniemi has received criticism regarding his production thus far. Nevertheless, at just 21 years of age he remains a key part of the team’s depth, a great deal of which that would be sacrificed on Habs teams of the future if the Canadiens were to take on a second $10 million+ deal (Carey Price). Even after getting healthy scratched during the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, Kotkaniemi nevertheless ended the playoffs with a tied-for-second five goals, standing alone in second place in terms of goals per game, behind just Suzuki.
Kotkaniemi vs. Tkachuk
Granted, there’s a case to be made Kotkaniemi’s 29 career postseason games represent too small a sample size to read too much into his nine playoff goals (from ‘By the numbers: Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi, Suzuki rising to the occasion,’ Montreal Gazette, June 4, 2021). Nevertheless, due to the amount of flak he’s received for not having produced in the regular season as much as, say, Brady Tkachuk, who was selected right after him in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, it seems odd to not give credit where it’s due for coming on in the playoffs. It should be pointed out Tkachuk has zero playoff goals (or appearances) to date.
As one might imagine, Tkachuk is due for a new contract himself, with the Ottawa Senators. As more of a front-and-center contributor on the Sens, he’ll most definitely get more than Kotkaniemi too. In fact, all the big guns from that 2018 Draft are in need of new deals at this juncture, to the point that it coincidentally makes more sense to look at the Suzuki’s 2017 Draft for potential Kotkaniemi contract comparables.
Three of the top four scorers, Nico Hischier, Miro Heiskanen and Cale Makar, have each signed second deals by now (Elias Pettersson). The “most” digestible of those is probably Hischier’s $50.75 million over seven years, which puts in perspective perhaps not what Kotkaniemi will make with his raise, but Suzuki instead. To put it further in perspective, the extra cap space the Canadiens are projected to have at their disposal, with Shea Weber potentially retiring, is $7,857,143. Hischier’s cap hit is just below that at $7.25 million. It could all go away just like that.
Meanwhile, the 21st overall pick that offseason, New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil, just re-signed for $4.6 million over two years. Considering his output, 34 goals, 71 points in 186 games, that’s more in line with what Kotkaniemi (22, 62, 171) could realistically earn, at least with a bridge deal, if that’s the way the Canadiens go. Adjust for Kotkaniemi’s higher draft pedigree and you’re probably looking at a $2.5 million hit for the next few seasons.
To Bridge or Not to Bridge
Obviously, the Canadiens and Bergevin specifically have been burned by bridge deals in the past, with P.K. Subban having signed one back in 2012. The same season he agreed to a two-year, $5.75 million bridge deal, Subban won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Bergevin than had little choice but to re-sign him the next time around to his current eight-year, $72 million contract, which coincidentally expires next season.
In a lot of ways, it probably makes sense to go long-term with Kotkaniemi’s next deal and give him more money now to potentially avoid more of a cap crunch during the prime production years of his career. However, if the cap crunch is already taking place due to the flat cap? With Suzuki projected to make at least $6 million realistically speaking, even if he takes a bridge deal, himself?
It should be pointed out that Bergevin doesn’t necessarily need to take the same approach with both Kotkaniemi and Suzuki. For example, he signed Alex Galchenyuk to a bridge deal for his second contract in 2015, while signing Brendan Gallagher to a six-year, $22.5 million deal earlier that same season, as his entry-level deal was set to expire. That’s probably the way to go here, with Suzuki having exceeded expectations to such a degree, it may very well pay to overpay him in the present to save in the future.
In contrast, Kotkaniemi clearly has significantly more room for improvement. To be clear, he hasn’t been a bust in spite of the criticism leveled his way, but, in spite of arguably having been drafted to be the team’s No. 1 center, he seems destined to play below Suzuki in the lineup however long both remain Montreal Canadiens. That should be one motivating factor for him. Another would be a bridge deal, to prove his doubters wrong. It’s the right move now, even if, in such an instance, the Canadiens would regret it financially (eventually).
Seeing Kotkaniemi reach his full potential would be well worth it, though. There are worse things than paying a player what he’s worth. There would be few better than a one-two punch consisting of Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, if each were to live up to their potential. Eichel and his arguably unsustainable contract coming this way at the expense of one of those two young guns isn’t necessarily one of them. Finding a way to keep both Suzuki and Kotkaniemi must be a higher priority.