RALEIGH — Better, stronger, faster — that was the goal in rebuilding Steve Austin, the fictitious Air Force colonel-turned-cyborg from 1970s TV and film.
On Saturday, the Hurricanes added a $6 million man of their own after the Montreal Canadiens decided not to match Carolina’s offer sheet on 21-year-old forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi and relinquished the 2018 third overall pick in exchange for first- and third-round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft.
Now the Hurricanes will look to rebuild Kotkaniemi — not with cybernetic enhancements but rather by untapping his potential.
“We were looking to add to our top group there, and to be able to add a player like Jesperi, at 21 years old, it’s only going to continue to get better.” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said Sunday in a call with the media.
And who better to help Kotkaniemi regain his confidence and justify his inflated one-year, $6.1 contract than Jack Adams Award-winning coach Rod Brind’Amour? In three years, Brind’Amour has already gained a reputation as one of the NHL’s top coaches and has a track record of turning young talent into NHL productivity.
There’s also a built-in support system with a franchise known for acquiring Finnish players — one that already has Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen among its forwards.
Aho also knows what it’s like to be part of an offer sheet. Two years ago, he signed one from Montreal — a significantly less-lethal offer than Carolina’s — and stayed with the Hurricanes on a five-year, $42.27 million contract.
Aho’s response to the pressure? He posted a 38-goal season in 2019-20 and followed it up with a point-per-game campaign last year that solidified his spot as one of the NHL’s top young stars.
“I just knew Carolina has a great team,” Kotkaniemi said of signing the offer sheet with the Hurricanes while acknowledging that two of his nation’s top players are now his teammates.
Unlike Aho and Teravainen though, Kotkaniemi hasn’t yet proven he is on a road to stardom. He had just five goals and 20 points for the Canadiens last season while mostly toiling on Montreal’s third line. His postseason was much better — five goals and three assists in 19 games — but it was overshadowed by the fact he was scratched in the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
“I had my role the last few years, but you can say I felt the confidence from the first second from Carolina,” Kotkaniemi said. “So like I said, that feels good.”
Either way, Kotkaniemi hasn’t done enough — and likely won’t do enough — to produce $6 million in value for the Hurricanes in 2021-22. But that isn’t the bet made by owner Tom Dundon, Waddell and Carolina’s front office. The Hurricanes’ brass is counting on Kotkaniemi becoming at least a 50-point player for the long haul.
That’s the risk and everyone knows it, including the Hurricanes. Even if the team and Kotkaniemi have already discussed an extension beyond this coming season that lowers his Lee Majors-sized contract — Waddell said the two sides hadn’t — the just-turned 21-year-old will need to show that in the pantheon of recent third overall selections he’s closer to Jonathan Huberdeau than Alex Galchenyuk.
That will start with Kotkaniemi — who played almost exclusively at center from Day 1 in Montreal — in a different role when he joins the Hurricanes.
“We know his skill level, we know what he brings to the table,” Waddell said. “We actually think, right now, we’ll probably start him on left wing. We’ve got Aho, (Vincent) Trocheck and (Jordan) Staal down the middle, and he’ll get to play with some very good players. We think he’s got the skill to be able to do that.”
That wasn’t always the case in Montreal, where Kotkaniemi was limited to an average ice time of 14:48 and was often put with checkers like Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen or Paul Byron. That said, he also played frequently with skilled players like Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson last season and struggled to find success.
Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, meanwhile, used his newfound assets to send first- and second-round picks to Arizona for Christian 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.
The Coyotes will get the Habs’ second-round pick in 2024 and the better of the Canadiens’ two 2022 first-rounders unless one or both picks is in the top 10, in which case Montreal will keep the better of the two.
Carolina will make room for Kotkaniemi’s contract by putting defenseman Jake Gardiner on long-term injured reserve. Waddell said Gardiner will have back and hip surgery and “not be ready to go this year.”
The focus now turns to Kotkaniemi and, in the big picture, the Hurricanes’ pursuit of a Stanley Cup.
“I think they’re one of the Cup contenders next year,” Kotkaniemi said, “so it’s always an honor to be part of a team like that.”
Kotkaniemi likely doesn’t have any idea who “The Six Million Dollar Man” is, but he will learn the pressure of living up to the expectations that come with that investment. The kettle will boil early for him with Carolina’s third game of the regular season in Montreal on Oct. 21, and it will continue to simmer as the Hurricanes try to do what the Canadiens couldn’t — both help Kotkaniemi realize his potential and win a Stanley Cup.
The answer might not come for years, but it likely won’t take a bionic eye to determine whether Saturday’s big investment in Kotkaniemi was worth it.