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Hurricanes’ decisive match of Aho offer sheet serves notice to the NHL

Underestimate the Tom Dundon-led Hurricanes at your peril.

Jamie Kellner

There was a certain defiance in the press release that the Carolina Hurricanes sent out just after noon on Tuesday. Usually the province of platitudes and cliches, general manager Don Waddell did not mince words: “Once again, the Carolina Hurricanes should not be underestimated.”

And how.

A whirlwind couple of days came to a decisive end on Tuesday, when the Hurricanes announced their intention to match the offer sheet that Sebastian Aho signed with the Montreal Canadiens less than 24 hours prior. The Hurricanes braintrust, owner Tom Dundon and Waddell, met the media via conference call shortly thereafter and left no delusions about exactly where things stand with the Hurricanes at the moment.

In short: the offer sheet was a waste of time, Aho wants to be in Raleigh, and agent Gerry Johannson won’t be joining Dundon and Waddell on the golf course anytime soon.

Dundon went Jay-Z on the assembled media Tuesday. To paraphrase, what’s $21 million to a (bad word) like him, can you please remind him? Yes, Dundon would prefer to not have to pay nearly half the value of Aho’s new contract in the first 12 months. But it can’t really be breaking news that a person, whether a billionaire or not, would rather not spend eye-popping sums of cash. Find me an owner who, if given the choice, would say “you know, I’d really rather spend more money than this!”

That person doesn’t exist, and anyone who accuses Dundon of being cheap because he’d rather not spend an amount of money many of us will never see in our lifetimes is missing the point entirely.

If Peter Karmanos still owned the majority stake in the Hurricanes, we’d be having a completely different discussion right now. He may have still matched, but not without giving serious thought to taking the draft picks. With Dundon, there was no question whatsoever.

On to the question of where Aho wanted to spend the next five years, then. Johannson stoked the flames a bit in an interview with Marc-Antoine Godin of The Athletic:

I think that Sebastian 100 percent wants to play in Montreal. He wouldn’t have signed an offer sheet if he didn’t want to play in Montreal.

Boy, those two words “I think” are doing a whole lot of heavy lifting.

Yes, Aho put pen to paper on an offer sheet knowing full well he could be leaving the Hurricanes. Waddell said repeatedly Tuesday that his conversations with Aho indicated nothing other than Aho wanting to stay in Raleigh, and Dundon said likewise.

And then the owner went all in.

“The question is, do you think you should believe an agent? You guys can figure that out,” Dundon said. “There is no scenario where Sebastian Aho doesn’t want to be on the Hurricanes. But it is his right to use that leverage the CBA provides to get the most money from us. That’s all that happened.

“I have not heard Sebastian Aho say that, and if he said it, that would be different. But he didn’t, and so the fact that an agent said it means there’s no credibility to it, number one, and number two, I know what I think of this person and this player, and there’s nothing that could make me or the organization not appreciate or respect everything that he does for us.”

Now, without having Aho on the call himself - he was originally scheduled to be on the call, but a Hurricanes spokesman explained that there were technical difficulties attempting to connect with him in Finland - there’s no way to verify what Aho did or didn’t say. But combining that with Waddell’s earlier characterization of Johannson having sold the Canadiens, in the GM’s words, a “bill of goods” that the Hurricanes were bluffing on their threats to match any offer sheet certainly indicates that the management team believes that Johannson misrepresented to Montreal Aho’s willingness to go elsewhere.

What makes this all so fascinating is the different levels of winners and losers. Every player in this play can qualify as both.

The Hurricanes won because they get their franchise player locked up for five years at below market rate, buy out a year of unrestricted free agency, and prove to the league that their talk is backed up with action. They lose because they didn’t get their preferred eight-year term, and then there’s that matter of those massive signing bonuses.

Aho wins because, depending on who you believe, he gets to stay where he wanted, and will be handsomely compensated. He loses because he left money on the table from the Hurricanes. (How much is anyone’s guess, but at the very least an eight-year contract at the AAV he signed the offer sheet for would give him more than $25 million in additional cash.) And there’s the PR rift that needs to be healed based on the fact that, pronouncements aside, he did sign a contract with the Canadiens. Agents work for the players; if Aho was dead set against the idea, he could have killed it right then and there. He didn’t.

Johannson won because he got his client his desired outcome: staying put, and at the term the Aho camp wanted. The fact that it required the Canadiens to get involved made it more complicated, and there won’t be any love lost from the fact that Johannson told Waddell that a counter offer was coming and never appeared. He loses because, well, you read what Dundon said above about agents, right? It won’t make Johannson’s job any easier in the future that he ultimately persuaded his client to accept an offer that was below what they believed his market value was.

The Canadiens might be the biggest losers of all. You could make the argument that they won because they can show their fans that they tried, but similar to the Blue Jackets’ last-ditch $96 million offer to Artemi Panarin on Sunday night, that only gets you so far. They don’t have Aho, at the end of the day, and now they get to twist in the wind with $8.5 million in cap space (and three draft picks) tied up until the Hurricanes serve official notice to the league that they will match. They’ll take their sweet time doing so, simply because they can.

Perhaps in four years, when Aho is eligible to sign a contract extension, we’ll have these same discussions again. Heck, there’s no guarantee he isn’t moved during the contract; it’s at this point that we’re obligated to mention that of the five offer sheets of more than a year that have been matched since the 2006 lockout, only one of the five players, David Backes, remained with his team through the length of the contract.

But that’s in the future. For now, the Hurricanes can put this in the rear view mirror, and get on with the business of the new season. As Waddell put it yesterday, “I know my summer just got better. I won’t spend all summer negotiating a contract.”

And every Hurricanes fan’s summer did too. The negotiation might not have been the most diplomatic way to get there, but it got there one way or another. The Hurricanes keep their best player, at a team-friendly price. What’s not to love?