Whether it’s true or not, Hurricanes GM Don Waddell denied that the (eventually successful) Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet was about getting revenge on the Canadiens. Waddell indicates that the trolling aspects of the fallout were about marketing, and letting the Hurricanes’ social media team have a little fun.
In the grand scheme of things, what happens on the ice matters the most.
So, about that. Can the Hurricanes get more out of Jesperi Kotkaniemi than the Canadiens did?
When you zoom in on the 2021-22 season alone, you don’t get the full picture of why the Hurricanes went after Kotkaniemi.
Things get more interesting if you take a wider view. Center Vincent Trocheck‘s $4.75M cap hit expires after 2021-22, and he enters this contract year at age 28. Jordan Staal, 32, will see his $6M AAV dissolve after two more seasons.
On one hand, Waddell claimed publicly that the Hurricanes only discussed Kotkaniemi’s one-year, $6.1M (plus trolling change) deal.
Waddell says he has “no idea” what Kotkaniemi and his agent will want in a longer term deal and that they only discussed the one-year deal.
— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) September 5, 2021
It’s possible that’s a matter of playing coy. Way back to when the offer sheet first surfaced, Elliotte Friedman indicated that the high one-year price might factor in a possible, cost-effective future contract for Kotkaniemi.
(Side note: Jake Gardiner is expected to go on LTIR, making room for this new contract.)
A younger (Kotkaniemi turned 21 on July 6), potentially cheaper player could be a nice replacement for Trocheck and/or Staal. With Martin Necas (22) also coming into his own and bouncing between the center and wing, you could picture something impressive forming for Carolina.
They have 24-year-old center Sebastian Aho locked up for three more years (about $8.5M) on that allegedly-not-revenge-inspiring deal. Also, Andrei Svechnikov, 21, just signed an eight-year contract that carries a $7.75M cap hit.
That’s potentially quite the young core, and there could be some good Finnish vibes, as Kotkaniemi joins Aho and 26-year-old Teuvo Teravainen (a $5.4M bargain for three more seasons).
Sounds great, especially after you sell it a bit, right? Well, the success or failure of the Hurricanes investing all of this in an offer sheet for Kotkaniemi ultimately boils down to …
Can the Hurricanes get the most out of Kotkaniemi after bumpy Habs development?
In giving up a first and a third-round pick in 2022, and paying Kotkaniemi far more than he was expected this season, the Hurricanes made a big upfront investment. Much like absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract for a first-rounder, the key for Carolina is if the bet will pay off down the line.
So, will it pay off? That’s where things get tricky, interesting, and maybe a bit granular.
On one hand, there was a jittery, staccato rhythm to Kotkaniemi’s development with the Canadiens. Injuries, the occasional AHL demotion, and even playoff healthy scratches didn’t help matters. As Andrew Berkshire discussed on The Hockey PDOcast, there also may have been an essential disagreement about how he should play. Berkshire noted that Kotkaniemi viewed himself as more of a playmaker, while Montreal seemingly wanted him to use his size to play a more straightforward style, focused on getting to tougher areas.
There was at least some sense that Kotkaniemi expects Carolina to be a better fit.
“It could’ve been better, but we played in the Stanley Cup Final last year,” says Jesperi Kotkaniemi about how he was developed by @CanadiensMTL
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) September 5, 2021
Talking to the press in his car, Waddell noted that Kotkaniemi’s likely to slot in at left wing. At least early on.
The Hurricanes’ early plan: start Kotkaniemi at LW
Playing on the wing, instead of center, might allow Kotkaniemi to assert himself on offense more often. Frankly, the most important difference might be linemates.
During his three seasons with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi’s linemates were scattered. It’s telling that Joel Armia is the only forward he logged more five-on-five ice time with (757:40 minutes) than without (649:33). His most consistent linemates were Armia and Artturi Lehkonen (703:42 with; 1,186:30 without).
Armia and Lehkonen are both very nice supporting cast forwards. Still, neither are the types of players who will light up scoreboards.
It stands to reason that Kotkaniemi will receive more dangerous linemates with the Hurricanes. Carolina has some incentive, even, to prop him up, after making this big gambit.
(To be fair, it also seems like the Habs were gearing up to give him a bigger role. He was penciled in as a 2C, and likely would’ve played with more dynamic wingers, more often. Whether he was actually ready for them, or not.)
Making the puzzle pieces fit
But will Kotkaniemi’s skills match up with the Hurricanes on the ice to the same degree that he seems to fit in their minds? That’s more complicated, and might boil down to how much leash he receives.
I talked about this last week, but my biggest concern with Kotkaniemi is most of his offense comes from perimeter play or passing, which Carolina already does a lot of. He can create off the rush, but there's only four players on the team who are allowed to do that. pic.twitter.com/tHzUlZTdYM
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) September 4, 2021
Can Kotkaniemi acclimate to the Hurricanes’ system after struggling with the Canadiens? Will his skating still hold him back? Last season, he scored 20 points in 55 games. His ceiling is almost certainly higher than that, but by how much?
This was already a fascinating and polarizing offseason for the Hurricanes. They’ve made big changes in net. Carolina allowed Dougie Hamilton to walk in free agency, hoping that Tony DeAngelo can be a cheap offensive alternative (while not being too … actually offensive).
Beyond totally not getting revenge, the Kotkaniemi offer sheet is another big Hurricanes gamble. If things really go off the rails, they could’ve squandered key picks in what’s expected to be a strong 2022 NHL Draft. They have some power in making themselves look smart by getting the most out of Kotkaniemi. That said, there’s also balancing getting the most out of their roster, overall.
Will this look like a smart move, or a case of Canes galaxy brain? We’ll see soon enough.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.