The Canadiens Shouldn't Match the Kotkaniemi Offer Sheet

It's not an easy decision, but it might be the best of a bad situation.

The hockey world was abruptly woken up from its summer hibernation today following the announcement by the Carolina Hurricanes social media that the team had tendered an offer sheet to young Montréal Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi - a one-year deal valued at $6.1 million for which the Habs would receive a 1st and 3rd round pick if they decline to match it. This move was nakedly a retaliation for the Canadiens’ own offer sheet against the Canes back in 2019, which targeted star centre Sebastian Aho and which Carolina matched despite its onerous salary structure. At the time, sources near the Hurricanes organization reported that the team’s front office was pleased with the Aho contract, gleefully matching the deal and grateful to avoid a lengthy summer of negotiations. But today’s events signalled that there was some lingering resentment, from the @Canes twitter account’s mocking use of French to GM Don Waddell’s mimicking of Marc Bergevin’s own press conference from two years ago.

The calculus here by the Hurricanes seems pretty clear. Despite being pencilled in as the Canadiens’ 2nd line centre following the departure of Philip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has not played anywhere near the level of a $6.1 million player. Evolving-Hockey’s contract projections, the best method we currently have at estimating a player’s market value, predicted he would receive $2.2M on a two year deal or $1.5M on a one year deal, reasonable considering he has played a 3rd line role for almost his entire career so far. But because the Habs have pressure to compete following a Cup finals run and a lack of organizational depth at centre, evidently the Hurricanes believe that they will feel obligated to clear up the necessary cap and match this deal. Once they do, not only will they be on the hook for that outsized contract this season, but his Qualifying Offer next season (which the team would be obligated to extend prior to July 1st to prevent him from becoming a UFA) would also be $6.1M. While the Habs could negotiate an extension before that, the looming threat of that QO would be a major bit of leverage for Kotkaniemi’s camp (as would the evidence that the Canadiens valued him enough to keep him at that number).

So the Canes get some petty revenge, a positive press cycle, and send a message to the rest of the league that targeting their RFA (like Martin Necas next season) won’t end well.

But the Habs shouldn’t let them get away with that. They should decline to match the offer sheet, take the compensation, and be on their way.

1. Kotkaniemi is No Aho

That goes without saying. But the broader point here is that these offer sheets are in no way comparable. The Habs offered Aho, a #1 centre, approximately his market value, with a few player-friendly wrinkles included such as few UFA years bought. The Hurricanes, on the other hand, have offered a player who could generously be described as an often adequate #3 centre a contract that is several times his market value and is absurdly player-friendly.

So far Kotkaniemi’s career has been up and down to say the least. In time spent almost entirely on Montréal’s third line, he has not yet shown the offensive upside that he was drafted for, while his defensive game has had peaks and valleys.

Drafted as a player who could elevate his linemates with playmaking, Kotkaniemi has some good under-the-hood microstats in terms of transition play and passing but so far his offence has been limited by what Jack Han argues is a lack of “shouldering speed” and deceptiveness. This has thrown his ultimate upside into doubt, leading to questions over whether he can be projected as a strong 2C, let alone a 1st liner or star.

When he has stood out in the playoffs, it’s mostly for reasons that we can comfortably argue aren’t sustainable. His nine postseason goals in 25 games have come off 23% shooting (compared to his 8% regular season shooting) and he got outshot and outchanced very heavily compared to his teammates this summer.

None of this is to say that Kotkaniemi is a bust or will never fulfil his potential. On TSN Radio Montréal a few weeks back I expressed enthusiasm with the fact that he would get an extended chance to prove he belongs in the Habs’ top six permanently this season. There have been flashes of solid play, such as in his rookie season or the 2020 bubble, but these have been pretty heavily outweighed by struggles in soft minutes. In an ideal world, the Canadiens would be able to find out what they have in this player this season and give him every opportunity to succeed in an offensive role, but the Canes have denied them the opportunity to play wait-and-see.

Is his upside a #1 centre? It’s not impossible, but given his lack of offence at 5v5 it seems very unlikely at this point. Even the more attainable goal of a solid #2 isn’t assured considering his on-ice limitations and the fact that he hasn’t exactly forced the issue with his play (until Danault forced it on his behalf by asking for 2C money). And the probability that he will be worth $6M this year and next season, let alone ever, seems even sketchier.

2. The Compensation Isn’t Nothing

If the Canadiens choose not to match the Carolina offer sheet, they will receive a 2022 1st round pick and 2022 3rd round pick from the Hurricanes. Both of those picks will be unprotected; in a good draft (which happens to be held in Montréal), that matters.

The Hurricanes’ summer has been a mixed bag. They lost Calder nominated Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek, who collectively stopped over 27 goals above expected last season, and replaced them with Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, two goalies with strong track records but less-inspiring recent performances. They lost Dougie Hamilton, who whatever his faults was the team’s primary possession driver, and replaced him with Tony DeAngelo, who despite his offensive gifts (no pun intended) is significantly worse defensively. You could make the case that in both instances, the Canes made a reasonable decision not to buy high on players at their highest value, but for a team who won their division because of a combination of puck possession and elite goaltending it’s a tough pill to swallow.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Division is shaping up to be a bloodbath. Every team except for the Columbus Blue Jackets is poised to be a competitor, as the Rangers and Devils mature past their rebuild, the Penguins and Caps grip their final years of contention, the Islanders do the Islanders thing, and the Flyers regress to the mean from a 89.7% save percentage. No team is assured a spot in the playoffs. With that in mind, while it might be fair to expect that Hurricanes pick to end up in the 16-25 range, it’s not out of the question that it could be a lottery pick. With the Canadiens on the outside looking in, Kotkaniemi or not, those two picks could help them retool quickly or become trade assets as the team pursues a long-term solution at centre.

The sunk cost of a 3rd overall pick on Kotkaniemi would hurt, no doubt, and the Hurricanes are likely counting on Bergevin being afraid to admit a bad pick there. The draft picks are a mystery box, but to a certain extent so is Kotkaniemi himself.

But keep in mind as well that because this contract would put the Canadiens over the salary cap, they would need to make a move to accomodate it. That means a zero-leverage cap dump at a time when those are already expensive and when the whole league knows that the Habs are desperate to move money. How much does it cost to move Paul Byron? Would they have to move on from Brett Kulak or Artturi Lehkonen with a sweetener attached? The trade-off here is more complex than Kotkaniemi for a 1st and 3rd.

3. Beat the Hurricanes at Their Own Game

Okay, this one probably shouldn’t factor into the actual decisionmaking. But the fundamental dynamic here is that the Hurricanes are retaliating at the Habs’ reasonable and rational offer sheet of Sebastian Aho with an unreasonable and predatory one that’s evidently more about revenge than team improvement. Even assuming that the Canes are high on Kotkaniemi’s potential (which they’d better be), $6.1M for probably the next two seasons is an absurd gamble for a team that doesn’t have excessive cap space and will have players like Necas, Niederreiter, Trocheck, Bear, and, yes, DeAngelo up for raises.

With all this in mind, calling the Canes’ bluff, not playing their game, and letting them roll the dice on Kotkaniemi might be the best course of action in a regrettable circumstance. There is a high possibility that this could backfire for either side, depending on the calibre of player that Kotkaniemi becomes and the performance of the Hurricanes this season. Carolina’s attempt to embarrass the Canadiens could work, or it could be yet another blunder in a risky offseason; they’ve succeeded in backing the Habs into a corner here, but Marc Bergevin has a chance to come out of this bad situation the winner by calling their bluff and moving forward.