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Quick Whistles: Eight Years for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nino Niederreiter, and the Numbers Behind the Hurricanes’ Losing Streak

The Hurricanes have made a long-term commitment to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but what does that mean for the futures of their other free agents?

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

If there was any skepticism surrounding the reasoning for the Carolina Hurricanes’ offer sheet of former Montreal Canadiens second-overall draft pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi last summer, it was put to rest in an official capacity yesterday afternoon.

The team announced that Kotkaniemi had been signed to a whopping eight-year contract extension that will clock in at a $4.82 million cap hit. Indeed, the Hurricanes are in it for the very long haul with the Finnish center, who will be 22 years old when the extension kicks in this summer.

Understandably, the gaudy terms of the deal, which seemingly doesn’t correlate with the ice time and numbers that the player has posted in his first year with the club, have generated varying levels of criticism.

Now that the deal is set in stone, we’re going to look at why the Hurricanes felt it was a safe risk to take.

Kotkaniemi ranks sixth in goals and tenth in points among Carolina skaters despite being on a season-worst 13-game goal drought wherein he’s only logged one assist.

That wouldn’t qualify as impressive, but some further digging reveals some reasons to have optimism about his future.

The versatile forward has played 13:00+ in 22 of his 59 games this season, being relegated to a bottom-six role on a team that’s looking to win right now.

In those 22 games where he did get a bump, he has scored seven goals and accumulated 16 points. He has two goals and six points in the four games where he has eclipsed 15:00 of ice time.

Then, we get into the “chicken or the egg” thing. Does he score more as a result of getting more ice time, or does he get more ice time due to him scoring early in games? That’s a pretty pointless conversation, but I think a lot was proved during a six-game stretch in December.

While the Hurricanes were getting hit by COVID issues, they allowed Kotkaniemi to take on a more prominent role. In those six games, he averaged 14:00 of ice time and racked up eight points as the team rattled off five straight wins.

He has also experienced a great deal of on-ice finishing efficiency, especially compared to some of his teammates.

As of late, despite his scoring drought, he has been indisputably excellent. Over his last 12 games, he has produced a 71.84% on-ice expected goals-for rate at 5-on-5. His relative lack of scoring this season could very easily be attributed to his lack of power-play use and, of course, his bottom-six role.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi 3-year weighted WAR percentiles.

His work throughout 59 games has included highs and lows, but the Carolina coaching staff and front office have seen enough from him to give him eight years and make a hefty financial commitment.

It’s hard to ignore that the Kotkaniemi acquisition has looked like a long-term Trocheck replacement plan from the jump. The way this pans out, presumably, is with Vincent Trocheck hitting the open market this summer.

If that happens, it will be a severe hit on Carolina’s forward group. While Trocheck has taken a step back this year compared to his outstanding 2020-21 campaign, he has still been a prominent top-six offensive presence.

Will Kotkaniemi be ready to take on top-six minutes next season? Only time will tell, but the Hurricanes have made a commitment to him that suggests they expect him to be.

Fuel, Fire, and Free Agency

Another big name scheduled to hit free agency this summer is Nino Niederreiter.

In a free agency year, Niederreiter has taken on a middle-six checking role, getting more than a minute less of ice time on a nightly basis compared to last season, and he has continued to prove that he is a fit on this roster beyond 2022.

It’s all a question of how the Hurricanes allocate their money. Before spending on any of their pending restricted and unrestricted free agents, they are projected to have just over $19 million in cap space.

Niederreiter, Trocheck, Martin Necas, Tony DeAngelo, Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, and the newly acquired Max Domi are among the players who are due for new contracts at the end of the year. It will be interesting to see how Don Waddell and co. will balance retaining some of those players while searching for new fits.

For me, it would be challenging to let Niederreiter walk. If anything, this Hurricanes team needs another player like Niederreiter, who plays a heavy two-way game and drives to the net consistently.

I’d be lying if I said that I knew what his market would be like, but if he does go unsigned through the beginning of free agency, I anticipate that many teams looking to win now will be knocking on his door.

The Numbers Behind the Losses

After Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers, Canes head coach Rod Brind’Amour vehemently rejected the notion that their current four-game losing streak is a matter of the team not playing well.

“That was probably one of our better games all year,” said the reigning NHL coach of the year. “Their goalie played great, and that’s end of story. I don’t know what else we could have done other than put pucks in the net. Everything we wanted to do, for the most part, we did. We just didn’t get rewarded tonight.”

“I know you guys are gonna write, ‘four losses in a row,’” he added. “Go ahead, but three out of those four games, I’d take all day long. End of story.”

Those three games he refers to were Sunday’s date with the Rangers and last week’s tilts with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

We go through this song and dance every year. The Hurricanes have a rough stretch with their offense, everyone is left wondering what the problem is, and Brind’Amour says there isn’t a problem.

That lasts one or two weeks, the team starts getting rewarded, and all is forgotten.

This particular dry patch was different because it came in the four games immediately leading up to the trade deadline, which came and went yesterday. Brind’Amour scoffed at the notion that the team needed a lot of outside help for their offense to get back on track, and the numbers suggest that he is right.

The team did add Domi, so there will be another forward in the top-nine mix, but the Hurricanes deserved to win three of their last four, and there’s very little reason to think that this current group isn’t capable of snapping out of this funk.

Against New York, Pittsburgh, and Toronto, the Hurricanes racked up 39 high-danger shots attempts at 5-on-5 and gave up just 21. Going hand in hand with those counting stats, they’re accumulated 8.85 xGF to 4.18 xGA for a 5-on-5 xGF% of 67.92.

The actual results?

Two goals for and six goals against at 5-on-5.

These stretches are tough, but the reality is that the Hurricanes have been playing well enough to win. And while this losing streak has likely eliminated their chances at the President’s Trophy, they still have a three-point lead on the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division with a game in hand, and they trail the Florida Panthers by just two points for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

As long as their overall game doesn’t change for the worse in their search for more goals, they’re too good to keep coming up short in the goals department. That being said, they need to get back on track in a short period of time. They can’t ride this kind of wave into the postseason and expect to have success.

With the deadline in the rearview mirror, the sole focus of everyone will be on winning games and closing out the season with momentum before trying to slay the dragons that have burned them down in the playoffs over the last few seasons.