Even with the last NHL season ending in July, August and the beginning of September are supposed to be the hockey desert. In terms of news, nothing happens. Training camps are still a couple weeks away and every player, exec, and writer has decamped to some cottage in northern Ontario (the top half of the state merely exists to be summer homes for hockey personnel, it seems). The whole sport goes to the back of the closet for a while. Which is usually fine with everyone.
But the Carolina Hurricanes and GM Don Waddell had a two-year-old grudge that they just had to settle with the Montreal Canadiens. Which they did by signing restricted free agent Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet of a one-year, $6.1 million deal. The Canadiens declined to match it yesterday, which meant that the Canes got Kotkaniemi for that price and the first- and third-round picks they had to send to Montreal as compensation. Montreal then spun that first-round pick to Arizona for Christian Dvorak.
While the Canes are claiming vengeance had nothing to do with it, this all stems from the Canadiens signing the Canes No. 1 center, Sebastian Aho, to an offer sheet two years ago, which the Canes quickly matched. Why the Canes are still stewing about that is anyone’s guess, because they’ve got Aho at an $8.4 million cap hit, probably below the going rate for the point-per-game, No. 1 center that Aho is. While they’ll never admit to this being revenge, they sort of gave the game away.
So what did Carolina win? That’s hard to gauge. Two years ago, at just 19, Kotkaniemi was just about the best possession forward the Habs had, finishing second on the team in both relative Corsi and expected goals percentage (according to NaturalStatTrick.com). He also put up 34 points, which again, at 19 is hardly anything to sneeze at. The kind of quick, two-way game that Kotkaniemi flashed then is the kind of thing Carolina has specialized for close to a decade now.
But Kotkaniemi has flattened out the past two years, and has seen his offensive production fall, as well as his possession metrics. Which makes paying him $6 million, even for just one year, curious as fuck. He’s still only 21, and with plenty of time and pedigree on his side.
Still, if the Canes wanted yet another 200-foot game forward with speed, Phillip Danaultl was out there and he came cheaper (though for many more years) than Kotkaniemi, and would have allowed the Canes to indulge in this juvenile urge to stick it to the Habs. Brandon Saad was another winger who would have fit in and provided more offensive punch, though not a center. But the Canes aren’t hurting for centers, and neither Saad nor Danault would have cost draft picks to sign. In addition, Kotkaniemi is not a goalie or a game-breaking scorer, the two things that Carolina needs most. He’s more of the same of what they have, a forward who possibly does everything right until it comes time to finish.
The buzz is that the Canes and Kotkaniemi have an under-the-table agreement for an extension after this season at $4 million per, but if he were to ball out the first three months, he doesn’t have to take that. Even $4 million per for what Kotkaniemi is now sounds high. Perhaps he’s slotted to step in for Vincent Trocheck/Jordan Staal as their contracts run out over the next couple years, but that’s a few large steps away.
As for the Canadiens...they have no centers. After the departures of Danault and Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki slots in as the No. 1 center. Dvorak, with no NHL season above 37 points, is the No. 2? And they’re in a division with Boston, Tampa, Toronto, and Florida, who all have enviable center-depth. What exactly is the plan here? If they wanted to strip Arizona for players, Conor Garland was had by the Canucks for a couple picks and a whole lot of ballast off the salary cap (Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and a bunch of other mayonnaise left in the sun). Wouldn’t that have been better? Fuck, the Canes might have been better off with Garland, too. The Habs aren’t terribly young—only Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Alex Romanov are under 25 and project to be impact players—and they’re not terribly good. That sounds like NHL hell.
More worryingly for the Habs, Kotkaniemi is the second No. 3 overall pick this decade that they couldn’t develop or harvest correctly, following Alex Galchenyuk. How many GMs get to fuck up two top three picks? Marc Bergevin can’t help failing upward, apparently. But he’s got great hair, right?
Oh, and the Coyotes look to be positioning themselves to basically launch their whole roster save Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun before moving to Houston or Quebec, but we’ll save that for another day.
So this whole Habs-Canes flap appears to be over, with both teams feeling like they got one over on the other, and neither appears to have gotten any better. The NHL… a tale told by an idiot..