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Jesperi Kotkaniemi Offer Sheet Creates Risk for Both Hurricanes and Canadiens

Adam Herman@@AdamZHermanContributor ISeptember 1, 2021

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Curtis McElhinney (35) blocks Montreal Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15), of Finland, during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, March 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The Carolina Hurricanes' signing of Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet on Saturday was a gift to the hockey world. The late-summer weeks are typically slow for hockey content, with the 2021 Women's World Championship the only relevant activity scheduled during that time this year.

Any offer sheet is noteworthy because they are uncommon and usually features a player of consequence. The optics of revenge for Montreal's offer-sheeting of Sebastian Aho in 2019 add a whole new dimension to the storyline. During what is expected to be the quietest period on the hockey calendar, the Hurricanes blindsided everyone with absolute chaos.

The move is a major win for neutral observers who are served with unexpected entertainment, but it's one that has significant implications for two Eastern Conference teams that, in differing ways, will have spotlights on them for the 2021-22 season. The Canadiens are coming off a run to the Stanley Cup Final. The Hurricanes are expected to be a top contender next season.

The fate of a 21-year-old former top prospect, as well as a first- and third-round pick, hangs in the balance. The Hurricanes took a massive risk by initiating this process and left the Habs in a vulnerable position with only a few days to choose between a rock and a hard place. It's a decision that will have significant consequences for the two teams both immediately and in the long term.

      

The Hurricanes' Big Risk

At least in concept, the Hurricanes' offer sheet for Kotkaniemi is perfectly executed. They found a young player left unsigned on a team with little wiggle room under the salary cap. He's a player who, while a good one, is not so integral to the Canadiens that general manager Marc Bergevin will be willing to move mountains to keep. They made an offer that the Habs might have a tough time justifying in spirit and an even more difficult time making work logistically.

In contrast to the Canadiens' offer sheet for Aho, which the Hurricanes matched without hesitation, in this example the Hurricanes are exploiting a situation where the other team may be out-leveraged.

But this particular deal for Kotkaniemi is a massive risk. He has had a roller-coaster career since the Canadiens drafted him third overall in 2018. He was good enough to make the NHL team as an 18-year-old in 2018-19 and played fairly well, then he suffered a sophomore slump severe enough for Montreal to demote him to the AHL.

Last season was a mixed bag encapsulated by his performances during the team's run to the Stanley Cup Final, where he was sometimes among the team's top contributors and at other moments played his way into the press box.

When Kotkaniemi is at his best, he's a cerebral two-way center with the hands to make plays in the offensive zone. Despite some hiccups in 2019-20, the defensive component of his game has, at least comparatively, been there. It's offensively where he's struggled the most, registering just 22 goals and 40 assists in 171 career regular-season NHL games. 

It's not the draft-pick compensation potentially headed to Montreal that causes concern, although that has to be accounted for. Kotkaniemi, despite his struggles, is a former top prospect who has had his moments in the NHL. He holds way more upside than that of what will likely be late picks in the first and third rounds in 2022.

The contract, and others necessary in coming years, is where this has the potential to blow up in Carolina's collective face. Even if Kotkaniemi presents the best version of himself, he won't be worth that $6.1 million next season. The Hurricanes themselves have to know this. It's suboptimal for 2021-22, but they have the cap space to deal with it.

It could pose much more of a problem long term. The following season, the Hurricanes will have to present him with a $6.1 million qualifying offer or he will become an unrestricted free agent. In theory, this would continue every offseason until 2026. 

Former NHLer Georges Laraque reported on 91.9 Sports that Kotkaniemi and Carolina have a handshake agreement on a contract in the ballpark of $4 million annually for the following season.

If true, that makes the situation more manageable, but it still sets the standard for Kotkaniemi as a top-six center at a time when he is still searching for enough consistency to remain in the lineup every night.

The 21-year-old has the talent to make this work, and the Hurricanes' style as a cycle-heavy team may suit him better. It's possible that he ends up justifying the contracts, but anything less than peak development will make him an expensive third-line center. 

dom at the athletic @domluszczyszyn

On Kotkaniemi Young enough that there is still a wide range of possibilities for him. Might not amount to much, but at 20 still has low-end 1C potential. Likeliest outcome right now is solid 3C https://t.co/hFb6Ig5Mza

 

The Hurricanes are effectively overpaying Kotkaniemi in the short term as a means to an end for acquiring a 21-year-old center with the talent to become a really good NHLer over the subsequent decade. There's logic in that, but this is a team that needs to get over the hump and realize its potential as an immediate contender. There is a path for Kotkaniemi to play a role in that pursuit, but with little margin for error, there are many ways in which this could backfire.

       

The Canadiens Are in a No-Win Situation

Kotkaniemi's signing of Carolina's offer sheet is literal insult to injury for Montreal. As the Hurricanes openly mock the Habs with no-so-subtle references to the prior Aho offer sheet, the Canadiens now face a major dilemma in an offseason in which an already rickety Carey Price underwent knee surgery, Shea Weber headed for pseudo-retirement and center Phillip Danault left for Los Angeles. 

Carolina Hurricanes @Canes

LOL https://t.co/OXX6n4WK57

 

Danault's departure is particularly relevant in assessing the predicament in which Bergevin finds himself. He was integral to shutting down the opposition's top players during the Canadiens' unexpected Stanley Cup run.

As it were, the Habs were already vulnerable down the middle after the initial frenzy of free agency. That the Habs were going to rely on Kotkaniemi to jump into a second-line role behind fellow youngster Nick Suzuki was itself an uneasy scenario.

Without Kotkaniemi, the Habs are in crisis at the center position. Suzuki is very good, but the cupboard behind him would be empty. Jake Evans and Cedric Paquette are nowhere near good enough for second- and third-line roles, respectively. Prospect Ryan Poehling has upside but isn't ready to even attempt such a prominent role. 

Yet the financial implications of matching the offer sheet are abysmal. Where the Hurricanes are overpaying for a luxury they can afford, the Habs don't really have the space to make this work. Paul Byron's hip surgery will push him to long-term injured reserve, opening up just enough cap space to squeeze Kotkaniemi in at $6.1 million with a smaller roster, but upon the latter's expected return a few months into the season, the team would need to move a notable salary in order to stay cap compliant. 

Even worse are the consequences in future seasons. Kotkaniemi may have a verbal agreement with Carolina on a lower future contract as a condition of their submitting the offer sheet, but the center would have zero obligation nor the incentive to give the same compromise to the Canadiens should they match.

They will be forced to offer Kotkaniemi that one-year, $6.1 million qualifying offer through 2026 unless a different agreement can be found while holding little leverage. 

The Canadiens seem to be planning for damage limitation by seeking out a separate trade in which they'd acquire a center, perhaps using the draft picks Carolina would be handing over. Jack Eichel would obviously be a dream scenario, though that situation is as complex as ever.

The more realistic name in the rumor mill is Arizona's Christian Dvorak. The Canadiens could do worse than acquiring the 25-year-old as a replacement.

Dvorak has been a strong driver of offensive possessions the last couple of seasons, but his offensive output has been underwhelming, albeit on brutal Coyotes teams, his defensive impacts have been OK and he's already suffered some notable injuries in his young career. 

Other potential options could include Sean Monahan (Calgary), Ryan Strome (New York Rangers) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (Washington). But early September is not the time to be in the market for a splash, with most teams having already conducted their big business early in the summer. And with every team aware of Montreal's sudden, desperate need, the market won't be a favorable one.

It's possible that Montreal does indeed find a suitable replacement, but this is still far from an ideal scenario. The Habs invested a third overall pick in Kotkaniemi just three years ago and despite some turbulence, his upside remains high. They became too cavalier in their negotiations with Kotkaniemi and, thanks to Carolina, now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

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