The Pros and Cons of Matching Jesperi Kotkaniemi's Offer Sheet

The Carolina Hurricanes have put the Montreal Canadiens in a bind. Should they shell out $6.1 million to retain their No. 2 center or take the draft-pick compensation instead?
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Embrace the chaos, baby. Don’t fight it. Let that warm, fuzzy feeling envelop you…a concept, foreign to some in hockey circles, known as F.U.N. It’s the same magical force behind things like flamboyant goal celebrations, Bud-Light-fuelled post-game press conferences and, yes, passionate team rivalries that play out on Twitter.

The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t the old guard’s jam. Fine. But, please, don’t embarrass yourself by calling their weekend behavior embarrassing. Using Twitter to engage in WWE-heel-style victory laps after revenge-offer-sheeting Montreal Canadiens center Kotkaniemi was something we won’t soon forget in the sport. That’s a good thing. Embarrassing? Embarrassing would be drafting Logan Mailloux or failing to conduct an NHL investigation into the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual-assault scandal. A dark summer punctuated by mistakes like that is cause for hockey to hang its head in shame. Gloating over an offer sheet? Not so much.

So let’s celebrate the anarchy of inking Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet in blatant retaliation to the Canadiens signing the Canes’ top center, Sebastian Aho, to a five-year, $42.27-million offer sheet in 2019 which they matched. In the team news release this past Saturday, Carolina GM Don Waddell even used almost identical language to that of Habs GM Marc Bergevin in 2019. The Canes sent a secondary tweet of the news in French. The chef’s kiss was the $20 signing bonus, a nod to Aho’s number. It’s difficult to imagine a precedent for a team taking such public glee out of putting a rival club in a pickle. Raise your hand if you can’t wait for the teams’ first game against each other in 2021-22. It goes down Oct. 21.

Back to the Habs’ pickle. With Phillip Danault gone to the Los Angeles Kings as a UFA, the Habs’ center depth got depleted over the off-season, and Kotkaniemi was likely to rise as high as second on the depth chart despite the fact he was scratched for two of five games in the Stanley Cup final. At 21, he’s hardly finished his ascension. Of the 597 forwards who played NHL regular-season games in 2020-21, 577, or 96.6 percent, were older than Kotkaniemi. But does that mean Bergevin should match on a player who has not delivered anything close to $6.1 million in value? It’s not an easy decision.

Historically, the offer sheets that have led to teams not matching occur when there’s a major discrepancy in how each team values the player. When the Edmonton Oilers swiped left winger Dustin Penner in the “barn fight” incident of 2007, they did so successfully because GM Kevin Lowe offered Penner a number Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke did not believe Penner was worth. It compelled the player to sign and his original team to walk way (as parties involved explained to me in this 2019 story). It appears the Canes are hoping to recreate those conditions. They know Kotkaniemi isn’t yet a $6.1-million player and are counting on the Habs to agree. Then again, a one-year deal isn’t so prohibitive that the Habs can’t match in hopes of negotiating a fairer pact for 2022-23 and beyond.

So what does Bergevin do? He has seven days from the date of the offer sheet to match, meaning he has until this Saturday, Sept. 4. Let’s explore the pros and cons of matching.

PRO: The Habs need the center depth

The timing of Danault’s departure really stings, doesn’t it? He was an instrumental piece of Montreal’s 2021 playoff puzzle, handling all the toughest defensive matchups during the Cinderella run to the final. When Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper had the last change at home and could scheme his top line away from the Danault line, the Habs were exposed. They’re slated to open 2021-22 without that defensive backbone after Danault, who had expressed reservations in the past about his long-term spot in the Habs’ pecking order, signed a six-year, $33-million deal with the L.A. Kings. Heady two-way center Nick Suzuki became the Habs’ unquestioned, all-situations No. 1 center the second that signing happened. He has a ton of responsibility on his plate this coming season.

Whether he’d earned the job or not, Kotkaniemi was ticketed as the Habs’ No. 2 center on paper after Danault left, with the rest of the depth chart up the middle consisting of checkers Jake Evans and Cedric Paquette. Prospect Ryan Poehling should get the best opportunity of his career and could eventually mature into a good shutdown player, but his overall ceiling might keep him in the bottom six, and that only further highlights how barren the Habs’ depth chart would be after losing Kotkaniemi. If they do, they might be forced to experiment with Jonathan Drouin returning to center now that he’s reportedly ready to return to the team.

CON: Kotkaniemi hasn’t delivered on his potential at all

If we said it then and had the foresight, we have the right to flex the hindsight muscle: the Habs reached on Kotkaniemi at third overall in the 2018 draft. Our prospect guru Ryan Kennedy’s final rankings had Kotkaniemi 18th going into that draft. Montreal went with positional need rather than picking the best available player, passing on the beastly left winger Brady Tkachuk, whom the Ottawa Senators happily snapped up at No. 4. When a baby-faced Kotkaniemi made the team as the NHL’s youngest player the ensuing fall, it felt like Montreal was doubling down just to promote the idea it made the right choice. After an intermittently effective rookie year in which he managed 11 goals and 34 points, he stumbled as a sophomore and wound up demoted to the AHL.

Leading up to the draft, Kotkaniemi was lauded for his potential as a playmaker with a high hockey IQ. In his three seasons as an NHLer, however, he simply hasn’t been a creator. Per naturalstattrick.com, Among 388 forwards who’ve played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 over that span, Kotkaniemi sits in the 46th percentile in shots per 60; 17th percentile in expected goals per 60; and 37th percentile in individual scoring chances per 60. As a playmaker, he unsurprisingly fares better at setting up teammates, but he’s only slightly above average there, sitting in the 59th percentile. As JFresh, whose player-analysis card are must-reads, explained it on Twitter, Kotkaniemi hasn’t enjoyed the same success in the regular season as he has in the playoffs, and the latter is boosted by a high shooting percentage.

PRO: Kotkaniemi is young enough to improve

It’s certainly not too late for Kotkaniemi to figure it out, to find a way to uncork his underrated shot more, to fill out his 6-foot-2, 201-pound frame. He’s shown a disruptive competitiveness in flashes throughout his career. The light could still switch on. He does have a first-round pedigree. Remember when the Hurricanes traded for Teuvo Teravainen in summer 2016? Teravainen carried a first-round pedigree, he was 21, he was coming from an organization that didn’t trust him in high-stakes situations, and he hadn’t yet performed to his draft-day standard. The parallels to his Finnish countryman Kotkaniemi are almost eerie, and the Canes organization turned Teravainen into the top-six forward he was always projected to be.

Revenge is fun, but they obviously aren’t pursuing Kotkaniemi for revenge alone. They see breakout potential in him. Should that give Montreal pause? Then again, given coach Dominique Ducharme’s refusal to rely on Kotkaniemi during the final, the bridge may be burned irreparably. Perhaps Kotkaniemi will only flourish if he changes addresses.

CON: Kotkaniemi isn’t worth $6.1 million, even for one season

Simply put: the $6.1 million would put Montreal over the salary cap despite the fact all other Habs regulars' contracts are signed and ready for 2021-22 and that Shea Weber’s $7.86-AAV will be stashed on LTIR. If you match on Kotkaniemi, you’re forced to throw another body overboard in a trade and, given other GMs would recognize the Habs’ desperate predicament, the Habs wouldn’t have much leverage in negotiations. Kissing Kotkaniemi goodbye escapes that headache. And if the Habs are among the teams wanting to wade into the trade waters for Jack Eichel or Evgeny Kuznetsov, they won’t want that $6.1 million inhibiting a potential deal.

Also, if the Habs or the Canes don’t work out an extension with Kotkaniemi by July 1, 2022, they’d have to give him a qualifying offer at $6.1 million. If Kotkaniemi’s camp knows he won’t get anywhere close to that AAV, why sign an extension before next July 1, then? He could put himself in position to get another $6.1 million or, if his team didn’t qualify him, become an unbelievably young UFA.

PRO: Matching protects Bergevin’s ego on multiple levels

In the most elemental sense, we can view the offer-sheet battle as a game of chicken. If the Habs don’t match, it means Bergevin blinked. If he’s perceived to have backed down, could it hinder him in future negotiations, be they for trades or contracts? Also, punting on Kotkaniemi and deciding he’s only worth a couple draft picks would essentially be admitting the Habs botched their top-three pick in 2018.

CON: The draft-pick compensation is worth more than Kotkaniemi

If Montreal doesn’t match, it receives Carolina’s first- and third-round pick in the 2022 draft, per the offer-sheet compensation rules outlined in the CBA. On one hand, the Hurricanes fashion themselves a Cup contender, and a dominant season would nudge those picks down to the end of the first and third round. On the other hand? This Canes team has lost star blueliner Dougie Hamilton and Calder Trophy finalist netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, among several other prominent contributors, during a head-scratching off-season for Waddell. Are we sure the Canes are still good? If they’re not, and there’s potential for the picks to land in the top halves of their respective rounds, the value seems fair for Kotkaniemi, especially in a loaded 2022 draft. Even if the Canes deliver another strong year and the compensation ends up being picks in the high 20s and high 80s, one could argue that’s still fair value when measured against what Kotkaniemi has accomplished.

THE VERDICT: To me, the cons of matching the offer sheet outweigh the pros. The Habs would find themselves in a financial bind for protecting a player who hasn’t played like a top-six forward so far in his career and may or may not realize his potential. 

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