Canadiens: In Other News… Lack of Secondary Scoring, Kotkaniemi Struggles

New York Islanders v Montreal Canadiens
New York Islanders v Montreal Canadiens / Minas Panagiotakis/GettyImages
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Jesperi Kotkaniemi Falling Apart This Season with Hurricanes

There was ultimately a mixed reaction when the Canadiens opted to let top prospect Jesperi Kotkaniemi sign with the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2021 off-season. After being tendered a surprising one-year offer sheet at a $6.1 million AAV, Montreal opted to take the compensatory first and third round pick rather than keep Kotkaniemi around in the lineup at a grossly overinflated price.

After being selected third overall by the Canadiens in the 2018 NHL Draft (in spite of being ranked outside of the top-end of the first round) Kotkaniemi endured an extremely rocky stint in Montreal that featured over-confidence and inconsistencies a plenty, in spite of showing some tremendous promise here and there.

Playing a pretty big role offensively for the Canadiens in the 2020 and 2021 playoffs (being a key factor in Montreal’s 3-1 first round comeback over the Toronto Maple Leafs) Kotkaniemi could just never fully replicate the consistency and promise he showed in his rookie season in 2018-19, leading to Montreal opting to let him walk and take it as a lesson learned (seeing as both Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes were still available, yes I know it hurts).

In his first two seasons, it seemed as though head coach Rod Brind’Amour and company had figured out what Montreal couldn’t, with Kotkaniemi recording career highs of 18-25-43 totals whilst playing all 82 games last season, serving yet again a key role in Carolina’s postseason run to boot.

And yet, while 2023-24 started off great for Kotkaniemi, the 23-year old center has completely and entirely fallen off a cliff in the latter half of this season, then hit another cliff, and another one, and another one, tumbling down endlessly with seemingly no end in sight. With just 9-9-18 totals and a -11 rating over 49 games this season, Kotkaniemi has been terrible, just not seeming to know where he should be at any given time.

Having done little if anything to help a Hurricanes squad that have been going through an up-and-down season and need consistency more than ever, Kotkaniemi has stuck out like a bleeding thumb in Carolina’s lineup and his contract status makes the situation even worse. Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon has built a reputation as a shrewd, cold, and calculating individual (having been the be-all-end-all of the once NFL-startup competitor the AAF) and would likely rather tear down the entire Hurricanes roster, arena, and city before admitting he messed up with Kotkaniemi, but the fact of the matter is, he did.

A move meant to strike back at a Canadiens team who mistakenly tried pursuing star forward Sebastian Aho in the 2019 off-season, has backfired even more so. At an eye-watering $4.82 million AAV until 2030 with a 10 team NTC set to kick in in 2025 (with a base salary of $5.2 million over the last three seasons) Kotkaniemi’s contract is a joke and not a particularly funny one, the kind you sign as a laugh when playing NHL 24.

Except this isn’t NHL 24. This is… well, the NHL. Obviously Kotkaniemi is still young at 23 and the potential is still there, but at this point we’ve likely seen his ceiling and even when he’s productive, his ceiling isn’t worth that much money, which could serve to be a problem as Carolina tries to improve their roster going forward.

Again, if Canes GM Don Waddell tried buying out Kotkaniemi Dundon would likely fire him on the spot and come for his reputation, but at a certain point the entitled-stubbornness of a well-off owner can’t disguise the fact that the decision to sign Kotkaniemi long-term thus far has been a costly one, and could turn out to be even more so in the future. Overall, it’s not looking good for the once boy-wonder of the Canadiens lineup.