A week after the Carolina Hurricanes caused a social media stir by signing Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet, the Montreal Canadiens formally declined to match it on Saturday.
As a result, the 21-year-old forward will join the Hurricanes for at least this season, and Carolina will more than likely seek to sign the former first-round draft choice to a contract extension. Meanwhile, the Canadiens, who originally drafted Kotkaniemi, will receive two 2022 draft choices, one in each of the first and third rounds.
“Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a player who has been on our radar since before his draft year,” Carolina general manager Don Waddell said in a statement. “We believe he will flourish in (coach) Rod Brind’Amour‘s system and culture, and he will be an important piece of what we are building in Carolina for years to come.”
When Carolina tendered the offer sheet, an ongoing storyline between the Hurricanes and Canadiens continued, though this might be the end of the soap opera.
Two years ago, Carolina star forward Sebastian Aho received a five-year, $42 million tender as a restricted free agent from the Canadiens, a deal that the Hurricanes matched begrudgingly.
Kotkaniemi, a sharp shooter who at times was left out of the lineup as Montreal raced to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, was someone Carolina coveted, no question, but the Hurricanes also enjoyed the fact that it was the Canadiens who had to deal with the headache.
The Hurricanes noted in their original news release last month that they also gave Kotkaniemi a measly $20 signing bonus, further adding to the banter across the league on social media. Aho’s jersey number, ironically, is 20.
The contract price, however, is no joke, as a winger who finished with just 20 points last season does not often command that high a paycheck in the NHL.
“He wants to come to Carolina,” Waddell said last week. “He sees the core we’ve built here and he wants to be a part of that. We’re proud.”
The Hurricanes, who lost in the second round last season to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the same team that Montreal eventually lost to, has salary cap space this offseason because of a few departures off last year’s roster, most notably star defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who signed with the New Jersey Devils.
But the core — especially on offense — that led the Hurricanes to a division title last season largely remains, including Aho, 24, who led the team with 57 points. Last month, Carolina also gave a new deal to forward Andrei Svechnikov, 21, securing him for eight years and $62 million.
Kotkaniemi — a Pori, Finland, native who will wear jersey number 15 and was the No. 3 overall pick in 2018 — could mesh well in that youthful offensive mix. In 19 postseason games for the Canadiens, he finished with five goals and eight points.
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) September 4, 2021
“His age and natural skillset suggests a very high ceiling, and the opportunity to acquire players like that simply does not come along very often,” Carolina assistant general manager Eric Tulsky said. “Jesperi is a smart player who sees the ice extremely well; it seems like every time he touches the puck, he puts his team in a better position.”
With room under the salary cap to maneuver prior to training camp, especially with injured captain Shea Weber out for the season and placed on the NHL’s long-term injured reserve list, the prevailing thought around the league was that Montreal would shop the Carolina draft picks to see if they could land an established forward to join the Stanley Cup finalists and replace Kotkaniemi’s production.
That turned out to be the case, as later Saturday night, the Canadiens acquired center Christian Dvorak from the Arizona Coyotes in return for two draft choices. Arizona will receive the better of either Montreal’s own first-round pick in 2022, or the Carolina choice it just acquired, and also a Canadiens fourth-round choice in 2024.
Dvorak, 25, played in 56 games for Arizona last season, finishing with 17 goals and 31 points. He is a power-play and faceoff specialist respected around the league, and ended the season with an 18:24 time on ice average.
Dvorak and Kotkaniemi will have a chance to face off against each other early on this season. The Canadiens and Hurricanes will meet in Montreal on Oct. 21.