The last few days have been an absolute whirlwind of news, vindictiveness and unmitigated sass.
The Carolina Hurricanes got Jesperi Kotkaniemi to sign an offer sheet.
Did the Hurricanes do it purely out of spite for the Sebastian Aho offer sheet? Did they see an opportunity to secure a young player with a perceived massive upside? Was it a combination of both?
The “why” doesn’t really matter at this point. It happened, and we will learn the outcome of the move in the coming days. If the Canadiens don’t match the one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet, Kotkaniemi will be a Hurricane.
Montreal has a tricky decision to make, and there’s an argument to be made both for and against matching the offer sheet.
If the Habs don’t match it, they will dodge having to overpay for Kotkaniemi in 2021-22 and then having to deal with the potential of a $6.1 million qualifying offer at the end of the season, which, in all likelihood, will still be a huge overpay for a cap-strapped team. The flip side is that Montreal’s center depth is already dreadful, and losing a full-time center from their roster would only exacerbate that problem unless they can then flip the compensatory picks (a first and third-round pick in 2022) for a top-six center.
There’s also the ego side of this, which appears to be a very real factor.
Based on Kotkaniemi’s recent track record and the fact that they scratched him in the Stanley Cup Final despite having five goals and eight points in 19 playoff games, it feels like Montreal will let Kotkaniemi walk and take the picks.
If that happens, the focus for the Hurricanes will be on where he fits, and the answer isn’t overly simple. The 21-year-old Finn has been a full-time center in the NHL, and the Canes seem to have their center group all but solidified with Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal, and Derek Stepan.
This season, it seems likely that Kotkaniemi will slot in on the wing and perhaps get some run at center in case of injury or for faceoff matchups. Don Waddell and company have been trying to fortify their forward group since the opening of free agency.
The problem is that it’s difficult to look at Kotkaniemi’s last two seasons and see a bonafide top-nine forward that can put the Canes over the top in the short term, at least not without some context.
Over the last two seasons, Kotkaniemi has tallied just 11 goals and 28 points in 93 games and has been far less productive than he was in his 2018-19 rookie season, wherein he scored 11 goals and had 37 points.
His performance goes beyond the counting stats, though.
It’s been well documented that Montreal has made a series of mistakes with his development. He came to North America and played in the NHL right away after getting drafted despite being undersized and likely needing time in the AHL, got moved all over the lineup when his production started to fade, and seemingly didn’t have much trust from the coaching staff.
While Kotkaniemi’s play on its own is a cause for concern, the way the Canadiens managed his development certainly played a role in him regressing instead of taking the next steps that you’d expect out of a third-overall pick.
There are areas in his game that are actually pretty attractive for a team looking for a top-nine forward. He is a playmaking forward, and Corey Sznajder’s tracking data shows that he was a dynamic offensive generator in 2021 despite his lacking numbers.
Next to talented finishers, Kotkaniemi’s playmaking ability should be valuable in the middle of a forward depth chart. He also bounced back from a bad defensive season in 2019-20 and was a well-above-average defensive forward in 2021, excelling at moving the puck out of the defensive zone with possession.
Right now, he’s a defensively stout playmaking forward whose playmaking hasn’t led to goals.
He may play better on the wing, but even if he does, the possibility exists that he could find his way back into the middle of the ice. Trocheck will be a free agent after next season, and Staal’s deal runs out after 2022-23. According to Georges Laraque, if Kotkaniemi does end up in Carolina, the two sides have tentatively agreed to a multi-year extension worth $4 million AAV. That deal can’t be signed until January.
Le Monde de Georges // Information de @GeorgesLaraque— 91.9 Sports (@919sports) August 30, 2021
Si le Canadien n'égale pas l'offre des Hurricanes, KK s'entendrait avec les Canes sur les termes d'une prolongation de contrat qui ferait en sorte qu'en tout et partout, son salaire serait de 4M$ par saison à moyen terme. pic.twitter.com/fbqZ6izOvF
More than anything, it feels like the Hurricanes are trying to lock in a young, former third-overall pick for the future with hopes of him turning into a top-six center that gives them flexibility regarding their future moves in the middle of the ice.
For that to happen, Carolina has to give him the confidence to go out there and play his game. With consistent ice time and quality line mates, Kotkaniemi certainly has an opportunity to make good on his upside, which I perceive to be a quality two-way second-line center.
This has to happen quickly, though, because Waddell has stated that this team is firmly in win-now mode. Instead of going out and getting a proven top-six forward, they opted to take a pretty substantial risk by way of an offer sheet for an underperforming young player.
Carolina is banking on Kotkaniemi’s last two seasons of offensive regression not being the red flag it can appear to be and that he can regain and build off of his rookie season production. If he manages to do that, the $6.1 million and compensatory picks will be worth it in the long term.
If he can’t hit his stride with the Hurricanes, it’s another questionable decision in an offseason full of questionable decisions.