Jesperi Kotkaniemi Signs Offer Sheet With Carolina Hurricanes
Offer sheets have become about as common as a blue moon in the NHL over the last decade. The tool that allows teams to sign other teams RFAs, with the original team either able to keep the player at the offered contract or let them walk for draft pick compensation based on the contract’s cap hit, has become incredibly scarce. We always hear this is because it’s other GMs think it’s taboo. And anyone who would dare to pull the trigger on an offer sheet would undoubtedly face future retaliation.
That’s why we’ve only seen one since 2014; when the Montréal Canadiens signed Carolina’s Sebastian Aho to a 5-year, $42.295 million offer sheet in 2019. The deal was supposed to be difficult for small-market Carolina to match; it was heavily front-loaded and relied on up-front bonuses. But the Canes matched, keeping their first-line center at a pretty reasonable cap hit. And everybody mostly forgot about the whole “guaranteed revenge” narrative surrounding offer sheets.
Per Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the offer sheet is a one-year, $6.1 million deal. It’s actually been confirmed as officially $6,100,035 by PuckPedia; and it features what has to be a record-low $20 signing bonus, with a yearly salary of $6,000,015. Because Kotkaniemi wears 15. Get it? I’m sure you’re dying of laughter right now. (In case you can’t tell, I’m team “kill this whole including your jersey number in your contract thing with fire,” but that’s not really important. Though I do respect including Aho’s number 20 in here; that’s an A+++ troll job, one that’s so strong it’s only logical to assume the Hurricanes’ Twitter person was part of negotiations). If the Canadiens don’t match, they’d receive Carolina’s 2022 1st and 3rd round picks as compensation. They have seven days to make up their mind.
Kotkaniemi was a high riser on draft boards leading up to the 2018 NHL Draft, where the Canadiens selected the young center third overall. He actually delivered a very good rookie year. Thirty-four points is nothing to scoff at for an 18-year old; but the crown jewel of Kotkaniemi’s game was his defense; his defensive graded out as nothing short of fantastic, to the point where many (especially in the analytics crowd) touted Kotkaniemi as a future Selke candidate.
However, Kotkaniemi took a pretty big step back in his sophomore season; he scored just nine points in 36 games and watched his underlying numbers plummet, with his expected goals for% going from a stellar 57% as a rookie to an ugly 44% in his sophomore season (and he was subsequently gashed to the tune of a 38% on-ice goals for percentage as a result). Things got so bad Kotkaniemi was even sent to the AHL for 13 games. Fortunately, Kotkaniemi bounced back in the bubble, tying fellow blossoming young center Nick Suzuki with four goals in ten playoff games (he scored three in 36 regular season games, for reference) as the #12 seed Habs went on a nice little run.
Kotkaniemi’s 2020-21 season was probably the second best of his young career; his offensive output and defensive play weren’t as strong as 2018-19, and he was healthy scratched multiple times in the playoffs. But he scored at about a 30-point pace and put up strong underlying numbers. And he was solid when he did play in Montréal’s Finals run, including an OT winner in Game 6 against Toronto.
Kotkaniemi’s a solid young player, but not one who’s worth $6.1 million; yet. Purely from a cap standpoint by the Hurricanes, this is an overpay that would slam Carolina right up against the cap ceiling if it works out. CapFriendly currently lists the Canes as having about $4.6 million in cap space, a figure that accounts for 12 forwards, 8 defensemen, and 2 goaltenders. Send down Carolina’s cheapest forward and defenseman; that’s Steven Lorentz ($725K) and Brendan Smith ($800K), and that brings you roughly $6.125 million in cap space. Just enough to squeeze in Kotkaniemi.
A first and third round pick is probably pretty close to fair value, given how Kotkaniemi’s young career has played out. Of course, the Canadiens would hope for than a 3rd and a (likely) late 1st for a player they chose 3rd overall just three years ago. With Phillip Danault departing in the offseason (for a cheaper cap hit!), Montréal is (was?) set to rely on Kotkaniemi heavier than ever in 2021-22, potentially plugging him right into Danault’s shutdown role and in a prime spot in the lineup, perhaps alongside Danault’s usual linemate, Brendan Gallagher. Losing him would be a fairly big blow to Montréal’s short-term outlook. And remember, the Canadiens have already seen Danault depart and lost Shea Weber to injury. You can certainly argue that Canadiens can’t afford to let another one get away.
But there’s also a legitimate argument for taking the picks and running. As mentioned, Kotkaniemi isn’t a $6.1 million player today. His upside is probably around Danault’s; excellent defensive center who will top out at 50-55 points. And it’s certainly not guaranteed Kotkaniemi reaches that level, though he is only 21. Seeing as Danualt made $5.5 million (albeit for six years) on the open market this year, you could argue as long as the cap stays flat (or close to it), Kotkaniemi will never be a $6.1 million player.
Of course, the cap will start rising again long before Kotkaniemi’s career ends, so eventually he’ll be worth that figure. But in terms of being worth 7.5% of the cap? Maybe not. Add in that Montréal’s playoff chances aren’t amazing in a very top heavy Atlantic Division, and getting two extra draft picks could be a nice boost for a quick retool (or a long rebuild, but I imagine Marc Bergevin wants to avoid that at all costs), and there’s a legitimate case to make this the first successful offer sheet since Dustin Penner all the way back in 2007. And like Carolina, adding Kotkaniemi’s $6.1 cap hit would push the Habs right up to the cap ceiling. Keeping him would require a corresponding move; it could just be sending a depth player through waivers, or maybe even a subsequent trade. Doable, but not optimal.
Ultimately, I think the Canadiens will match this (admittedly over-priced) offer sheet. Letting a 21-year old former top-three pick walk because you tendered a pretty easy-to-match offer sheet two years ago would be a tough look for Marc Bergevin and company. It’s not impossible to see Carolina missing the playoffs this year. But it’s not likely, especially if they get a boost from adding Kotkaniemi. And I doubt Bergevin is buying the concern around his team fifty days after reaching the Stanley Cup Final. But a lot has changed since then, of course. Montréal’s stock has already slipped massively this summer, making responding to this move correctly even more critical.
Carolina’s offseason was following a similar trajectory before this decision. That’s not because it’s a shrewd or even a smart one; whichever team has Kotkaniemi in 2021-22, will be overpaying him, and the $6.1 million qualifying offer they’d have to tender to keep him as an RFA in 2022 very well may still be an overpay. But this is the fun pettiness that outsiders fell in love with back when the Canes embraced Don Cherry’s “bunch of jerks” chirp. It was about taking hockey’s outdated moniker’s and shoving them back in its face. They literally did just that today, dropping all of the shade on their original six foe. And from an outside fan’s perspective, it’s delightfully entertaining. For the most part.
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Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 and via Natural Stat Trick; Salary Cap Info via CapFriendly