Holy hell has this been one emotional cluster of an offseason. And with less than 40 days from the start of the NHL season (FINALLY!), the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes have blessed us all with the pettiest of squabbles.
In a classic game of “I’m not touching you,” the Carolina Hurricanes have snagged 21-year-old restricted free agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi with a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet from the Canadiens. The whole situation is blatant retaliation for the Sebastian Aho offer sheet two seasons ago and Canes GM Don Waddell isn’t even trying to hide it.
Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said the Kotkaniemi deal was 'all about the player'
— Hockey Night in Canada (@hockeynight) September 5, 2021
Most of you know the story by now, so I won’t regurgitate information like a Mama bird. That’s not the point of this piece. The point is where the Montreal Canadiens are now as a team. By choosing to not match the offer sheet, the Canadiens were awarded a first and third-round pick from Carolina.
One of those picks was then used to acquire a superior centerman in Christian Dvorak.
No one can fault Kotkaniemi for taking the offer, not the fans or his teammates. He made the smart career move, plain and simple. Plus, Marc Bergevin isn’t known for being overly generous with his funds.
The Canadiens (+125) are steamrolling the No. 1 seeded Flyers 👀
Max Domi picks up his third assist of the day on the Kotkaniemi goal. Montreal leads 5-0.pic.twitter.com/uhPtHaymSo
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) August 14, 2020
No, Kotkaniemi made the right move for Kotkaniemi and that’s fine. The same can be said for the Habs. The Hurricanes put Bergevin in a really tough predicament and instead of blinking, overpaying a young player, and then setting the team up for failure later, Bergevin let the former third-overall pick leave.
It was the correct business move.
Not quite ready to center
Looking at Kotkaniemi’s numbers, the young centerman has had a rough go so far. He’s failed to live up to his rookie campaign (again, so far) and was even a healthy scratch at moments during the recent run in Playoffs.
|82 Game Avg.||NHL||82||11||19||30||132||71||39||243||54.5||358||422||45.9||96||40||38||46|
His faceoff percentage might be the biggest concern. Your potential number two center can’t be that far below .500.
When Kotkaniemi was selected third overall in 2018, he wasn’t the best player on the board. Brady Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes, and Joel Farabee are just a few players who were drafted behind him. The Habs went for positional need, a position he hasn’t played particularly well.
Canes fans need to understand that he won’t live up to the contract. He won’t. The sole purpose for this overpay was to pry him from Montreal, which it did. Now, he needs to show that he’s worth a first and third-round pick, and hope that Waddell extends a long-term contract in the $4 million range.
Change of position
Going into the acquisition, Waddell had made his interest in Kotkaniemi known, even attempting to strike up a trade. However, nothing serious manifested, which lead to the offer sheet. All the while, it was known that Waddell valued Kotkaniemi as a top-six “true center.” But then this happened:
Don Waddell says Jesperi Kotkaniemi will start at left wing with the @Canes
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) September 5, 2021
So why the change? James O’Brien of NBC Sports has one opinion:
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).
Maybe the plan is to play him on a wing with Vincent Trocheck in the middle and Martin Necas on the right? That’s a level of skill that Kotkaniemi has yet to play with. But, he’ll need to beat out Nino Niederreiter for that second-line role.
Either way, playing him at wing gives him more time to mature and develop into that “true centerman” he was advertised to be. Had Montreal matched, he may have been rushed into a role that he was likely not yet ready for. If anything, Waddell has shown how this strategy works à la Aho and Necas.
Dvorak, plain and simple, is the safer buy. Does he have the same potential as Kotkaniemi? No. But, if you ask me the gap isn’t that far off. Dvorak is still just 25-years-old and will instantly slot in as Montreal’s second-line center. Honestly, he’s more of what the Canadiens need.
Trouble down the middle
Looking at the lineup, the Montreal Canadiens were hurting after Phillip Danault left in free agency for the Los Angeles Kings. Nick Suzuki will center the top line between Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield, but before Dvorak, there wasn’t someone to replace Danault.
Between Kotkaniemi, Cedric Paquette, and Jake Evans, Kotkaniemi was the next best option and he wasn’t ready for the role. Jonathan Drouin could be coming back and they could have tried him at center again, but that didn’t work the first time.
Montreal is better off
Dvorak, who is on a far more balanced contract, makes the Montreal Canadiens better than they were a year ago. If the Habs hope to prove that last season’s run at the Stanley Cup wasn’t a fluke, Dvorak will need to play a huge role in that. He’s been freed from the grasp of Arizona and now he needs to cement himself as a fixture in Montreal.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 6, 2021
He’ll be given every opportunity to succeed and will have a fan base backing him like he’s never seen before. A fan base that will watch him like he’s never been watched before. In Arizona, the bar was so low that there was honestly very little expected of him. He won’t have that luxury any longer.
Also, this isn’t his fault, but he’ll also need to outperform Kotkaniemi or fans are sure to hold that over him and Bergevin.
The Montreal Canadiens got the better center | Daniel Blanda | 9/8/21
Featured Image via NHL.com