At the start of the 2021-22 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes were welcoming in a lot of new faces. A disappointing loss to the eventual cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and impending crunches of a flat cap had set the stage for some major roster upheaval.
The Hurricanes decided to lean towards older players and a good amount of veterans were brought in. But the team wasn’t exclusively looking for experienced players, and as such there were roster spots to be had by some younger faces as well.
One such face was the center of biggest offseason storyline, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was acquired via offer sheet. A $6.1 million offer that the Montreal Canadiens chose to walk away from in exchange for a first- and third-round pick in the 2022 Draft.
One reason it generated so much drama was because it was the first successful offer sheet since the Edmonton Oilers acquired Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Sure, other offer sheets had been signed – for one, the Hurricanes’ own Sebastian Aho signed a 5 year, $42.27 million contract with the Habs in 2019 – but all of those had been matched by the original teams.
Because of the rare nature of the acquisition, Kotkaniemi entered an even brighter spotlight than the former third-overall pick in 2018 had had in Montreal. One with mounds of expectations and scores of people waiting on him to fail.
But there was another young face that arrived in Raleigh at the same time. One whose expectations came not from his draft position or franchise necessity, but one who earned the hype as he progressed. That one face was Seth Jarvis.
The Hurricanes drafted Jarvis 13th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft at a time when many in the fandom were clamoring for Russian netminder Yaroslav Askarov. But Askarov was taken two picks ahead of the Canes by the Nashville Predators.
So the Hurricanes drafted the small-framed but quick and tenacious winger from the Portland Winterhawks who had flown up the rankings after a monstrous year and, almost immediately, he began to set off people’s radars.
He lit up the AHL after a brief stop with the Chicago Wolves following the WHL shutdown, dazzled at the 2021 prospect showcase, impressed in training camp, was a force in the preseason and all of a sudden, he was still on the roster come opening night.
Heading into the season Jarvis and Kotkaniemi were the two youngest players on the team, just a bit over a year and half separated in age, but each had vastly different expectations piled upon them.
For Jarvis, the hope was for him to just be able to stick around and produce, but there were no true expectations to uphold. If he couldn’t quite make it, it was alright. He would just need a little bit more time.
But for Kotkaniemi, what followed him was the burden of a $6.1 million cap hit, the first- and third-round pick used to acquire him, and the expectation to produce after a few years already in the league.
And as could be expected, the results from the two forwards mirrored the opposite of those expectations.
The weight of expectations
Things didn’t go well almost immediately for Kotkaniemi. He started his Carolina tenure on the wing and was fed top-six minutes on a stacked Hurricanes roster, but it became obvious that he just wasn’t cutting it in that position.
Of Kotkaniemi’s 12 goals and 29 points in 66 games with the Hurricanes last season, the Finnish forward registered just two goals and three points as a winger over a span of 13 games.
When it became clear the winger experiment wasn’t working, Rod Brind’Amour gave him the chance back at center and all of a sudden it was like he was a different player.
However, there was a clear problem with that? A very real lack of open center spots.
The Canes were set down the middle with Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck, Jordan Staal and Derek Stepan and the then 21-year old could only get time centering the fourth line while he learned the Hurricanes’ system and rebuilt his confidence that was dismantled in Montreal.
“I knew my role all year so it really wasn’t that big of a deal,” Kotkaniemi said during this year’s training camp. “Like I’ve said before, many times, we had a great team last year. There was a lot of competition for the spots in the lineup.”
Jarvis also wouldn’t appear on the stat sheet early on in Carolina, but for a much different reason. It took until nine games into the season for Jarvis to get his first shot in the league, but once he was there, he didn’t look back.
Nearly scoring in his first game, he followed it up by actually scoring in his second one and while there were stretches of limited production, his impact was noticeable night in and night out.
Jarvis finished off a tremendous rookie season by putting up 17 goals and 40 points in 68 games and followed that up with a three goal and eight point playoff performance in 14 postseason games, which was fifth on the team.
The small-framed forward showed a thirst for the net and a tenacity that made him successful in all three zones and he quickly found himself as a staple in Carolina’s top six as his game improved.
And so while the rookie soared, Kotkaniemi saw his ice time and production stagnate.
Confidence is a heck of a drug, and it all stems from your mental state.
When you’re feeling good, you play good. And vice versa.
So it’s no wonder that the young rookie, without the burden of expectations, was able to thrive and the other, who had never had a game without the monumental burden of loads and loads of expectations, struggled to find stable footing.
But out of the spotlight, Kotkaniemi was able to find a role and do well in it on the fourth line. It was obvious that he was a much better player lined up at center and he made plays and contributed well there.
And as that confidence came, there were also glimpses that with better minutes and linemates, he might be more than he showed throughout the season.
Kotkaniemi played over 14 minutes 12 times last season and registered seven goals and 14 points in those games. Every time he was given a chance to step up, it seemed like he was ready for that role.
So better minutes and stronger linemates should see the 22-year old easily boost his production, right?
The front office certainly believes so, as they signed the Finn to an eight-year, $4.82 AAV deal in the spring. The Canes need him to step up into the role of 2C and produce and they obviously think he can do it.
“That’s the hope,” said Rod Brind’Amour. “That’s why he got brought in. I think management had an idea that this might be exactly what happened. That Trocheck was gonna move on. So they had a good backup plan. He’s a young kid with a lot of talent. We’ve talked about this a lot. We think it’s time now that he’s got to start emerging and I think I’ve got to go ahead and give him the opportunity but he’s got to earn it. There’s a good understanding there and we’ll see where it goes.”
Kotkaniemi now has a chance to meet the expectations he fell short of last season and will be able to start off in the best position possible for him to reach them and he knows exactly what is required to do that.
“I need to step up my game a little bit,” Kotkaniemi said. “Be a little more productive when I go out on the ice. I think now I know how everything works. It’s the same system, same guys, same coaches. So I think this year will be better. We have high expectations for the whole team. Hopefully we’ll reach them.”
But what’s still important to remember is just how young of a player he is. One who was rushed into the league as an undersized 18-year old who still probably needs to go through the proper growing pains of becoming an NHL regular.
“He’s still, to me, just a young, young player,” Brind’Amour said. “So if you’d ask me about any of the young players, I’d say the same thing. He definitely has the mind for it and he just needs to get better like all of the young guys.”
The same goes for Jarvis, who will more than likely be starting on the top line this season. He’s still a young player, so the key for him this season will be about continuing to be successful and how he will handle those expectations now that he is in the spotlight.
A lot of players go through a “sophomore slump” in their second professional year and it can frustrate many young players. Along with the ramped up expectations, that second year can be hard for many.
But to be a great player, you have to keep pushing yourself regardless.
“He has to keep taking that next step,” Brind’Amour said. “No different than if we were talking about any of the players. You have to keep getting better. You can’t be happy with where you’re at.”
Jarvis’ return also won’t be without a worried eye either, as the young forward was knocked out of the Hurricanes’ final game last season after absorbing a heavy hit from New York Rangers’ defenseman Jacob Trouba.
The road to recovery wasn’t easy for Jarvis either, who suffered a concussion from the hit.
“It was not great,” Jarvis said of his rehab. “I was here for probably a week to two and a half weeks extra just going to doctors every day and people checking up on me and stuff. Then I went home, took maybe a couple of days off, and I was like, ‘Okay, I want to go back to the gym and see how I feel.’ I went in the gym, the music was going and I walked in there and was like, ‘Ah, I can’t be in here.’ Just the music was too loud. So I had to take another… probably week and a bit off and I was just going for walks and I had a stationary bike so I’d stationary bike a little bit just in complete silence because the music and stuff kind of hurt my head.”
But he says he’s ready and feeling good for the time being.
“Finally I was able to make my way back into the gym,” Jarvis said. “Honestly when I got back in there and was comfortable with the setting, like the music and everyone being loud around me, stuff like that, I was able to kind of get into lifting and stuff right away. Once I got about a week of that, got comfortable and felt like I was back and ready to go, it was smooth sailing from there. Feel great now. Feel ready to go.”
A special bond
When you’re the two youngest players on the team, it makes sense that you’d band together and as such, the two have grown close since the start of last season.
From Jarvis hanging out for the holidays as one of the honorary Finns, to frequent taco dinners together which, according to Jarvis, is Kotkaniemi’s specialty, the two have spent a lot of time together.
The bond can be seen too over the banter that the two share.
When asked about who was looking good early on in training camp, Kotkaniemi replied, “Jarvis has been looking pretty good. I can’t lie to you guys,” and upon hearing that, Jarvis responded with a cheeky, “I paid him to say that.”
Jarvis also was surprised when he was told that Kotkaniemi seemed like a quiet guy.
“Yeah, he doesn’t shut up,” Jarvis said on his Finnish friend. “It’s just nonstop talking. When he gets comfortable it’s just talk, talk, talk. Only way to get him to stop is to interrupt him or tell him to shut up.”
“But I love him. I just let him go on. He’s awesome. I love listening to what he has to say.”
It’s no secret that the two youngsters have gravitated towards one another and it’s led to a camaraderie between the two forwards. One that has seen the two fall on each other for support.
“He takes a lot of unnecessary slander, I think,” Jarvis said on Kotkaniemi. “He is an incredible player and someone that, given the right role and once he gains his level of confidence in that role, he’ll flourish. I think he’s got all the tools. He’s got a wicked shot, sees the ice well, his skating is improved, he’s big and strong. I mean what else could you really ask for. So I think yeah, this year in an expanded role, he’ll do really well.
It can’t be easy to burden high expectations, but that’s the cost of Stanley Cup aspirations and the two forwards know that. But having someone else to share that load with, one who you can relate to and one who knows what it’s like, certainly makes it easier.