RALEIGH — Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said he didn’t have any butterflies before he played his first game in Montreal after signing an offer sheet with the Canadiens the previous summer in 2019.
He called it just “another game.”
Thursday’s visit to the Bell Centre won’t be just another road trip for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
“It’s probably a little different for him because I never played for them,” Aho said.
Kotkaniemi is the first player since Dustin Penner, who jumped from the Stanley Cup-winning Ducks to the Oilers back in the summer of 2007, to move to a new team via an offer sheet. Drafted third overall by Montreal in 2018 — one spot behind new teammate Andrei Svechnikov — Kotkaniemi failed to convince the Canadiens he was a second-line center in three seasons wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge.
The one-year, $6.1 million contract Kotkaniemi signed with Carolina left the cap-strapped Habs with a decision: give up on a player they started in the NHL as an 18-year-old or cut their losses on a player the team scratched for the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final against eventual champion Tampa Bay.
So Kotkaniemi is in Raleigh, skating on a new line in practice with fellow Finns Aho and Teuvo Teravainen ahead of his return to face the most storied franchise in NHL history as an opponent. When he steps on the ice at Bell Centre, it will be as a left wing playing for a nontraditional market that many in the Montreal media still believe should be relocated and become the reincarnated Nordiques.
“That’s one game on the schedule I looked out for,” Kotkaniemi said Tuesday when meeting with the media over Zoom. “It will be fun there to see old teammates. I think it will be a blast, for sure.”
It’s not a situation many players have experienced — and certainly not at 21 years old.
“Obviously, much different circumstances,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said when comparing Kotkaniemi returning to play in Montreal with his first trip back to Philadelphia in late 2000 after being traded to Carolina. “I remember it was not easy. I was much older too, so I can imagine it’s gonna be tough. But that’s part of the business here, and you get that one out of the way and it kind of, as time goes on, it kind of dies down.”
By the time he finally won in a game in Philadelphia as a member of the Hurricanes, Brind’Amour was Carolina’s captain. At the end of that 2005-06 season, he was lifting the Stanley Cup on home ice.
While Brind’Amour is still beloved in the City of Brotherly Love, Kotkaniemi is sure to hear some jeers given his role in his departure from Montreal.
“I mean, he signed up for it,” Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal said Tuesday. “I think it’s gonna help him. Sometimes all of that stuff can kind of fuel you to have a good game, and I hope that’s the way he uses it.
“This obviously doesn’t happen a whole lot in the league, so it’s a unique situation. But players play against their old team all the time, and I think he’s going to have a great game coming up.”
Kotkaniemi seemed glad that his return was coming in just his third game with the Hurricanes.
“I think it’s good — sooner or later, it would come onto the schedule,” he said. “Like I said, it’s probably good to get it out of the way early, get back there, see old teammates and fans. I think will be a good night.”
In two games with the Hurricanes — both wins — Kotkaniemi has averaged just under 12 minutes of ice time and been held without a point. Aho said it’s understandable “KK,” as his teammates call him, is still adjusting to his new team.
“It’s still a new system,” Aho said. “He used to be a center, now he’s a winger. I know it can take a little time to get just, you know, just the little details.
“Deep down, everyone knows he can play hockey and make some plays, but just definitely details in our system and in the way we want to play. So it’s going to take, I don’t know, a few more games maybe, and then … he doesn’t have to think out there, just react and just play the way he can.”
But before he can “just play,” Kotkaniemi will first face the media and fans in Montreal for the first time.
“I think that’s part of the job.”