Why Canadiens should refuse to match Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet

Jesperi Kotkaniemi
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[UPDATE: Montreal has declined to match. Kotkaniemi is now a member of the Hurricanes.]

When the Montreal Canadiens signed Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet two years ago it was a no-brainer decision for the Carolina Hurricanes to match it.

Aho was already their best player, and the offer sheet itself not only saved the Hurricanes from having to go through a tough salary negotiation, it gave them their best player at a below market salary. In a lot of ways the offer sheet from Montreal did Carolina a favor.

On Saturday, the Hurricanes still tried to exact some sort of revenge for the attempt and signed restricted free agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet. Montreal now has seven days to match, or walk away with some much needed salary cap space, a first-round pick, and a third-round pick.

That, also, should be an easy decision.

That decision should be to let Kotkaniemi go, save the salary cap space, and take the draft picks.

Let’s start with this as it relates to Kotkaniemi specifically.

[Related: Hurricanes tender offer sheet to Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi]

The Canadiens made a huge investment in him by selecting him with the No. 3 overall pick in 2018 and immediately pushed him to the NHL. He has shown flashes of the potential that made him such a high pick, and he does have a lot of elements to his game that still indicate he has a bright future ahead of him. But the actual on-ice results have been very mixed. He has not developed his offensive game much in three years, the Canadiens themselves are not entirely confident he is ready to be a top-two center in their lineup right now, and he was healthy scratched in the Stanley Cup Final.

He is still young. But if a player picked that high in the draft is going to become an impact player you would probably like to see more signs of it by now.

Have the Canadiens been perfect with his development? No. Have they made mistakes and rushed him? Probably. But he is not a $6 million player right now. Probably not even close to it. If the Canadiens match that offer they are locking themselves into, a) having to keep him for the entire year, and b) be faced with the prospect of giving him a $6 million qualifying offer next offseason or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.

When it comes to the first point, the CBA does not allow to trade a player for one year after matching the offer sheet. If he plays out the year, does not show any more development (a contingency you have to at least prepare for), there is no way Montreal can justify another $6 million investment. It is an outrageous price for a player that, simply, has not yet played anywhere close to that level and may never play at that level.

It would make him the fifth highest paid player on the Canadiens this season with a completely unproven track record.

Losing Kotkaniemi and Philip Danault in the same offseason would be, on the surface, a significant blow to the team’s center depth and bad PR after a surprising Stanley Cup Final run. What it could do though is create a lot of other avenues for the team to get a better, more impactful player.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

If the Canadiens took Carolina’s first-and third-round picks it only adds to their trade capital. They would have 12 draft picks in the 2022 class, including six in the first three rounds (two first round picks, a second round pick and three third round picks) and with some salary cap flexibility would be in the market for an upgrade. That could be a modest upgrade like Arizona’s Christian Dvorak, or a significant upgrade like getting back into the Jack Eichel sweepstakes. Those two first-round picks and another young player or two might certainly get Buffalo’s attention.

Everything about this situation seems like Carolina’s attempt at revenge for signing Aho to an offer sheet.

From the signing bonus being $20 (Aho’s number), to general manager Don Waddell using the exact same quote in the press release that Bergevin used in signing Aho, to the team tweeting out the announcement in French.

Even if you believe the report that Carolina wanted to trade for Kotkaniemi and likes him as a player, they have to know he is not a $6 million player this season and that his trade value is not at a first-and third-round pick. This seems like it is mostly about sticking it to a team that tried to take their star. It all reeks of pettiness and trying to leave Montreal in a tough salary cap situation and a spot where they have to make a significant decision on Kotkaniemi next season.

The Canadiens should call that bluff and let Carolina worry about the cap hit, the qualifying offer, and whether or not Kotkaniemi ever develops into the player they thought he could be.

Save the money, do not worry about if Kotkaniemi can show real progress this season or not, and use your newfound draft capital to add a better player from somewhere else.