Montreal Canadiens: Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the Six Million Dollar Man

MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 26: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the warm-up against the Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre on November 26, 2019 in Montreal, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 8-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - NOVEMBER 26: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during the warm-up against the Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre on November 26, 2019 in Montreal, Canada. The Boston Bruins defeated the Montreal Canadiens 8-1. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

There’s a lot to unpack regarding the current situation between the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Montreal Canadiens. In essence, it’s a revolving door with no apparent end, except for one. A $6 million pay-day for center, Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Granted, much of this has been discussed already by my fellow contributors at A Winning Habit, and a similar idea seems to be prevailing throughout, one which is expectedly rather divisive. In reality, there is no true right or wrong answer in this situation, rather, its more a question of whether the Canadiens are willing to take a risk on what has been a largely middling player throughout his first three NHL seasons.

I think it goes without saying that Kotkaniemi hasn’t had the easiest ride in Montreal since being taken by the team third overall in the 2018 NHL Draft. A product of the town of Pori, Finland, and a regular contributor for SM-liiga club Assat Pori, Kotkaniemi was a surprising pick by the Habs considering the wealth of other talent available, and his ranking outside of the top five. However, after showcasing some immense potential in his rookie season in 2018-19, posting 11-23-34 totals over 79 games, it seemed as though Kotkaniemi was NHL ready. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.

In between a demotion to the Laval Rocket, a brief stint back in the Liiga with Pori in 2020-21, and multiple stints as a healthy scratch, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin and his revolving door of head coaches haven’t been able to find a place for Kotkaniemi in the lineup. Bouncing from the first to the fourth line and back, the 6’02 center has now decided to bounce to a new location, in Carolina.

With his entry-level deal expiring, set to become an RFA at the end of the 2020-21 season, Kotkaniemi remained unsigned in spite of an impressive performance in the Canadiens Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Thus, this brought in everyone’s favorite NHL executive, Hurricanes sole owner and CEO, Tom Dundon. I had already been aware of Dundon’s reputation, due to his ill-fated dealings with the AAF (Alliance of American Football) a start-up NFL competitor headed by Charlie Ebersol that closed down after less than half a season.

Dundon doesn’t mess around when it comes to how he handles the Hurricanes and their business, and this was painfully evident after the team had announced their signing of Kotkaniemi to a one-year offer sheet worth $6.1 million AAV. Thus, this started a tidal wave of confusion and uncertainty rivaling that of well, the time the Canadiens did the exact same thing to the Hurricanes.

For the select few of you not aware, much of the reasoning behind Carolina’s decision to sign Kotkaniemi, stems from the Canadiens previous failed attempt at bringing over Hurricanes star Sebastian Aho. In 2016, Bergevin and the Canadiens made headline news on July 1st, inking the Finnish star to a five-year deal worth $42.27 million, with a whopping $21.7 million earned over the first 12 months. However, due to the rather low AAV of the deal, the Hurricanes easily matched it on July 7th, with the deal going down as nothing more than an attempt by Bergevin to make up for another lost start to free agency.

After signing a one-year offer sheet worth $6.1 million AAV with the Carolina Hurricanes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s future with the Canadiens is now uncertain.

Well, after what many consider to be one of Montreal’s busiest off-seasons in recent memory, it appears as though Dundon and GM Don Waddell (though the contract was mainly Dundon’s idea) haven’t let bygones be bygones, and rightfully so for the most part. Now, the Canadiens have a seven-day period to match the offer, otherwise receiving a first and third round pick as compensation. This has now brought up the question of what Kotkaniemi’s true value is, at least as compared to his performance over his initial three seasons.

While it’s clear much of the reasoning behind this contract stems from traditional bush-league tropes reminiscent of the NHL’s pre-salary cap days (including the $20 dollar signing both indicative of Aho’s jersey number), the Canadiens will still have to risk losing a former third overall pick and projected franchise player. However, in that same sense, many wonder whether Kotkaniemi is ultimately worth that kind of contract in the first place, and well, the answer, at least in my opinion, is no.

I don’t have to have a degree in aerospace engineering to tell you that $6.1 million is a decent chunk of change for what has been a fairly underwhelming prospect over the past few seasons, and Kotkaniemi, regardless of his potential, just isn’t worth that kind of money, nor would being attached to that kind of contract be good for his development. I’ve already had some issues with Kotkaniemi’s perceived over-confidence at times in both the Stanley Cup Playoffs and regular season, and it’s a confidence I don’t believe he’s fully earned.

Getting a $6.1 million AAV deal, regardless of which team its with, would only make matters worse, and have an expectation placed upon Kotkaniemi that would be difficult, if not impossible to live up to. At his core, Kotkaniemi is a talented player, and one that has been well documented by us here at A Winning Habit, with his lethal release, hard hitting nature, and net driving presence. Simply put, when he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s not, well he’s not, and for $6.1 million, I feel as though Kotkaniemi needs to better showcase that consistency, something I’m ultimately not sure he’ll be able to do in Montreal.

In many ways, Kotkaniemi’s case isn’t too dissimilar to that of Lars Eller, the Canadiens main return for former starter Jaroslav Halak whom like Kotkaniemi, bounced around the lineup never truly finding a permanent spot. While Eller eventually turned into a reliable two-way center for the Washington Capitals, it remains to be seen whether Kotkaniemi can similarly fulfill his potential and become the dangerous offensive force Canadiens fans envisioned initially. Whether it be with Montreal or Carolina, however, is in Bergevin’s hands, and it’s a decision I personally, wouldn’t make, simply taking the picks and drafting well to make up for the loss of Kotkaniemi.

As the 2021-22 season is set to get underway, the Canadiens already appear to have their hands full with new developments and similarly new additions. Yet, just as that $20 dollar signing bonus looms over Montreal Canadiens fans heads, so too does the imminent departure, of yet another lost first-rounder, in Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Next. Kotkaniemi offer sheet all about Tom Dundon being petty. dark