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Kotkaniemi ready to start fresh with Hurricanes

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The 21-year-old Finnish forward will get an opportunity to prove himself as a key contributor in Carolina.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Two Photo by Florence Labelle/NHLI via Getty Images

In adding a promising young piece to their forward group for the 2021-22 season, the Hurricanes went an unconventional route. A route, that, in fact, had only succeeded once before in the salary cap era, and not since 2007.

The Montreal Canadiens elected not to match the Hurricanes’ one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, so Carolina will send first and third-round picks in the 2022 draft to the Habs for the Finnish forward.

Don Waddell said that an offer sheet was not the Hurricanes’ first choice in acquiring Kotkaniemi, and that they’d been involved in trade talks with Montreal for a couple weeks beforehand. When those talks didn’t yield results, however, the Hurricanes elected to use the other avenue available to them for acquiring the 21-year-old restricted free agent.

For Kotkaniemi, who’d experienced some ups and downs since being drafted third overall in 2018, the decision to sign with the Hurricanes boiled down to both the faith the team showed in him, and playing for a team that’s gone to the playoffs each of the last three seasons and has its sights set on the Stanley Cup.

“Carolina is a great team,” Kotkaniemi said. “They will be a cup contender next year. Everyone wants to be part of a team like that, so I think it was a good decision from our side.”

While $6.1 million is obviously an over pay for Kotkaniemi, that’s the nature of offer sheets: you have to pay more than market value to keep the other team from matching if you actually want the player.

Waddell said everyone with the Hurricanes understands that, and the expectations for Kotkaniemi won’t be based on his 2021-22 price tag.

“I think when you make an offer sheet, we weren’t making an offer sheet just to make an offer sheet, we wanted to make an offer sheet that we potentially could get the player,” Waddell said. “I think everybody will look at it the same way. It’s an acquisition with the acquisition cost of getting a young, 21-year-old player. I think that all makes sense. I’ve talked to a lot of players on our team, and everybody understands the process, that’s for sure.”

While the move appears to put the Canes over the salary cap, Waddell said defenseman Jake Gardiner will have hip and back surgeries and go on long term injured reserve, which will clear up the necessary space.

While the Hurricanes had three years worth of data on Kotkaniemi as an NHL player to evaluate in making the decision to sign him, their evaluation went back further than that. When Kotkaniemi was drafted third overall in 2018, the Hurricanes had the pick before that, which obviously became Andrei Svechnikov.

Kotkaniemi, however, was a player the team’s scouts also did quite a bit of work on, and Waddell and his brain trust referred back to that in making this decision.

“Certainly, at that time, we discussed the player at great length, did interviews,” Waddell said. “Everybody was very familiar with the player as not only a player but as a person. We made a decision to draft Andrei. Darren Yorke, who leads our amateur scouts, was very much a big part of this when we were talking about what type of player we saw in Jesperi and what type of player we feel he can be. You interview a lot of players in the draft for future knowledge, and obviously this one was a little different but came to light as we started talking about this player.”

When the Hurricanes announced they were signing Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet last week, there were several call backs to the Canadiens’ 2019 offer sheet of Sebastian Aho, such as Kotkaniemi’s $20 signing bonus (which Waddell called a group effort), Waddell giving pretty much a carbon copy of Bergevin’s 2019 quote about Aho and several Tweets from the team’s official Twitter account. Those led many to speculate that revenge was a factor, perhaps even a primary one, in the decision to sign Kotkaniemi.

Waddell asserted that that was not the case, and that the team’s hockey decision to sign Kotkaniemi, and how the announcement was handled from a marketing standpoint were separate.

“It certainly was not revenge,” Waddell said. “We talked about this player, we know this player. We used the CBA, as other teams have in the past, to try to acquire a 21-year-old player. So to us, it was all about the player. We looked around the league and thought this made the most sense from where we are as a team. As you know, we have a couple other good Finnish players on our team and thought this would be a great fit. The release, that’s a marketing thing. We’re trying to continue to build our franchise here in Raleigh, trying to keep our fans engaged. Our social team gets huge marks from the NHL, and they had some fun with it.”

Though Kotkaniemi has largely been a full-time center in the NHL, Waddell, citing the Hurricanes’ current depth at center, said he’ll likely start at left wing, and “play with some very good players.”

While Kotkaniemi’s production (22 goals and 62 points in 171 career games) has yet to match his draft status, clearly the Hurricanes still see the promise and potential that led Montreal to select him third overall, and believe he can play an important role in their forward group going forward.

That belief played a major role in Kotkaniemi’s decision to become a Hurricane.

“I felt the confidence from the first second from Carolina,” Kotkaniemi said. “It feels really good when someone’s trusting you.”

Kotkaniemi will join two Finnish countrymen in Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, and he said he’s spoken with both about the team and city of Raleigh.

He also said he’s exchanged a couple texts with Rod Brind’Amour, and is clearly excited to play for the former long-time center.

“It feels great to have an old player as a coach, Kotkaniemi said. “You can tell he’s been doing a great job over there over the years. You can see from the style the Hurricanes play that there’s an old player in the coaching seat.”

While it certainly stands to reason this could end up being a long-term relationship, Waddell said the Canes and Kotkaniemi haven’t discussed a long-term deal yet (he’s not eligible to sign an extension until January anyway) and see how this goes with Kotkaniemi on a new team and in a new role.

That chance to prove himself with a fresh start is one Kotkaniemi is looking forward to as he looks to carve out a role as a top producer for the Hurricanes for years to come.

“It will be a great opportunity,” Kotkaniemi said. “Feeling the confidence that the team is trusting you is always good for a player. I’m really excited for this opportunity and can’t wait to get things started.”