Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi was always going to enjoy success with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was about as certain as death, taxes and at least a few readers disagreeing with the fairly innocuous thesis that the Habs should just move on instead of dwelling on the past.
In any case, the question was always going to be how much success was Kotkaniemi going to enjoy right off the bat. After all, he was going to a Stanley Cup contender on paper. Finally, and this cannot be emphasized enough, Kotkaniemi is not a bad player. He’s inconsistent. More than that, he’s just young.
So, as it turns out, Kotkaniemi is having a decent season. Not superstar-esque by any stretch, but definitely solid. His seven goals and eight assists through 31 games put him on pace for about 40 points over a full 82-game season. The seven goals would co-lead the Habs, for the record. Although, again, comparing Kotkaniemi’s output with the Hurricanes to what he would be hypothetically be scoring as a Hab is like comparing a Thoroughbred’s time to that of an injured horse not even in the race.
Kotkaniemi Still Not Worth $6.1 Million
Assuming Kotkaniemi continues putting up points at this pace, he will hit a career high, which, again should not be surprising. What is however is he’s been accomplishing all this getting less ice time than he did last season (12:18 vs. 14:48 per game, including 1:10 on the power play this season vs. 1:54 last).
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It’s impressive, but it’s also not worth the $6.1 million Kotkaniemi is earning this season as a result of the hostile takeover of his rights last fall. The simple fact of the matter is the Canadiens would not have been able to fit both Kotkaniemi’s hit and Nick Suzuki’s new one under the cap ceiling next season. And Suzuki is simply more valuable to the Habs as the team’s No. 1 center, one who’s just 22 years of age.
Ex-general manager Marc Bergevin was thus right to let Kotkaniemi walk, or at least less wrong, which is perhaps more of an accurate way of putting it. True, Bergevin could have theoretically matched and extended Kotkaniemi to more of a cost-effective deal this current season, and that’s what the Hurricanes are expected to do instead. However, the saga likely only exacerbated an already tense relationship between the two sides. Maybe Bergevin decided to just cut his losses. Emphasis on “his.”
Where Bergevin screwed up royally was letting negotiations with Kotkaniemi get to the point where he did get offer-sheeted by the Hurricanes. After all, this is the team he had put in his crosshairs a few years ago, when he offer-sheeted Sebastian Aho.
Not only is turnabout fair play, but the Hurricanes had tried to trade for Kotkaniemi before making him the offer (from ‘Carolina GM insists revenge wasn’t part of Jesperi Kotkaniemi deal,’ Montreal Gazette, September 6, 2021). So, Bergevin had to have at least an inkling an offer sheet was coming.
Kotkaniemi vs. Dvorak
Granted, Kotkaniemi’s father had been diagnosed with cancer (from ‘Le pere de Jesperi Kotkaniemi atteint d’un cancer,’ Le Journal de Montreal, August 4, 2021). So, there is perhaps a reason getting Kotkaniemi under contract took as long as it did. Logically though, if Kotkaniemi can sign a Hurricanes offer sheet, he could have signed a Habs deal instead. There was clearly a disconnect between how Kotkaniemi and the Habs felt he should be deployed, with Bergevin in the end expressing discomfort with head coach Dominique Ducharme playing the center on the second line.
The sad part is, with the departure of Phillip Danault to free agency, it would have been the only logical place to play Kotkaniemi. Instead, largely with the compensation the Canadiens got from the Hurricanes, they traded for Christian Dvorak to fill that role instead. Dvorak hasn’t exactly met expectations with five goals and seven assists in 27 games, but those totals are in line with how he’s produced in his career up to now. Expectations on the part of some were just unrealistic.
Dvorak did enjoy a decent uptick in 2020-21 with 31 points in 56 games, but, for the most part, what you had seen in the 25-year-old was what you were going to get. He didn’t realistically have another level to his game. Kotkaniemi likely does, at which the above tweet would hint.
Canadiens Can Move Forward with Bergevin Gone
Giving up as much as the Canadiens did for Dvorak was another miscalculation by Bergevin, who was obviously let go a few months afterward. There’s some debate regarding the exact reason why Bergevin was fired, but giving up two high draft picks for a middle-of-the-road forward certainly couldn’t have helped his cause, especially when the Canadiens are as far away from a playoff spot as they are.
Thankfully, Bergevin did get top-10 protection for the first-round pick, which is going to come in handy considering the Habs are 7-23-4 and one point out of last place, with 32nd-ranked the Arizona Coyotes having two games in hand. That puts them in position to draft someone to replace Kotkaniemi, perhaps someone better. Who knows?
With a new regime in place, greater efforts will likely be put forth so that something like this doesn’t happen again from a developmental standpoint. They have to be, because, make no mistake, there were issues with how Kotkaniemi had been handled by the Habs, starting with perhaps bringing him along too fast and ending with not re-signing him soon enough.
Bergevin was right not to match, but the mistakes leading up to that decision were too numerous in nature that Kotkaniemi and ultimately he himself had to go. Now that Bergevin is gone, there’s no reason to harp on it. What’s it going to do, exactly? Kotkaniemi’s not coming back and the Canadiens are in a position to undergo a legitimate rebuild. This time they’re in a position to do things right, with new management in place that you have to believe will ensure they do. That’s all you can realistically ask for at this point.
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After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.