RALEIGH — The Montreal Canadiens decided not to match the Carolina Hurricanes’ one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet on center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, giving up on the 2018 third overall pick in exchange for first- and third-round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Kotkaniemi adds undeniable — but unproven — talent to a Carolina forward group that struggled to score in the postseason.
“Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a player who has been on our radar since before his draft year,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said in a statement. “We believe he will flourish in 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.”
The Hurricanes’ decision to target Montreal also had a revenge factor.
Two years ago, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin signed Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho to a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet, one that Carolina quickly decided to match. But Montreal’s move — rarely used by NHL GMs — did require the Hurricanes to pony up more than $21 million in signing bonuses in the first two years of the deal and walks Aho right to unrestricted free agency.
Carolina’s front office remembered and retaliated, not only going after one of Montreal’s top young players with an offer sheet last Saturday but also needling Bergevin along the way. The Hurricanes included a $20 signing bonus in the deal — a nod to Aho’s sweater number — and the accompanying press release mirrored the one the Canadiens sent out when they signed Aho to an offer sheet in 2019. After taking the full week to decide, Montreal decided not to match.
“Carolina has used a tool available to them in the collective bargaining agreement and we accept that decision,” Bergevin said in a press release.
Unpleasantries aside, the focus now turns to Kotkaniemi and Christian Dvorak — the center the Canadiens acquired shortly after deciding not to match Carolina’s offer sheet.
Kotkaniemi has 62 points in 171 regular season games in his first three seasons. His best year was his rookie campaign when he had 11 goals and 34 points as an 18-year-old. But he has failed to develop the way the player selected right before him, the Hurricanes’ Andrei Svechnikov, has in his young NHL career, and Kotkaniemi’s five regular season goals last year had Montreal doubting if he was capable of being a top-six center.
Carolina believes Kotkaniemi will be, and they are banking on his potential and a bigger role — he’s played more than 16 minutes in a regular season game just 21 times in his career, compared to 108 times for Svechnikov — to make the deal worthwhile.
Montreal, meanwhile, sent first- and second-round picks to Arizona for Dvorak. The 25-year-old has scored at least 15 goals four times in his five-year career and had arguably his best season last year. Dvorak had 17 goals and 31 points in 56 games, logging a career-high 18:24 a night.
With No. 2 center Phillip Danault gone in free agency to Los Angeles and Kotkaniemi out of the picture, Dvorak will slot behind Nick Suzuki as the Canadiens’ second pivot. Dvorak is signed for four more years with a cap hit of $4.45 million.
But the cost was steep for Montreal. The Coyotes will get the Habs’ second-round pick in 2024 and the better of the Canadiens’ two 2022 first-rounders. With Montreal’s reshaped roster looking weaker than the one that made a surprise run to the Cup Final last season, that draft choice could very well be a lottery pick.