The Habs didn’t take much time finding their replacement for Jesperi Kotkaniemi with their acquisition of Christian Dvorak on Saturday. Our writers offer up their thoughts on the move.
Terry Costaris: This Young and the Restless-like soap opera between the Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes owner, Tom Dundon (playing the guest role of the malicious, mercurial and vengeful billionaire industrialist, Victor Newman) just took a new and spicy plot twist.
Dundon/Newman, served-up a business poison pill move here that the Habs refused to swallow. Indeed, our dashing, wiley, tender GM, Jack Abbot (played by special guest star, Marc Bergevin), at the last minute (OK, an hour past the Jesperi Kotkaniemi signing deadline) surreptitiously switched the lemonade in Dundon’s celebratory bourbon lemonade with his own deliciously bland Gatorade style version.
Clearly, I need to keep my day job and not apply to be a soap opera writer.
This last week, we’ve been entertained with a little drama, poison and cliffhanging storylines. Not bad for the dog days of summer.
At the end of the day, the Habs have landed a very good two-way centre with some offensive flair who channels a bit of both the now-departed Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar at a very good cap cost.
Bergevin did the most that he could do with a bad situation. Losing Kotkaniemi stings on multiple fronts. He’s 3 years away from becoming whoever he may be as an NHL player. The odds of Kotkaniemi becoming a number one centre though, are far less than that of a number three. Paying and investing in him and his growing pains at a more reasonable $2.5M per year over the next three years is worth the gamble of what he may be. $6.1M this year plus the possibility of $6.1M next year if he accepts his qualifying offer or an extension in the $4M range though, makes no business sense. As a result, Kotkaniemi had to be let go – especially when the Canadiens were able to secure a ready for prime-time number 2-3 level centre taking his place at roughly $4.5M per year over the next four years.
Dvorak is a great placeholder who might either be retained or traded away if someone like Pierre-Luc Dubois becomes available down the road. At some future trade deadline, he should easily fetch back a first at or something near what Montreal will give up next June. And surely, the money saved by not paying Kotkaniemi could instead be used to land a free agent in the future.
I’m going to put some faith in Bergevin’s actions. Montreal’s main strength is in pro scouting. Aside from trading with Steve Yzerman, the Canadiens generally have a superb record when it comes to making deals with other franchise GMs.
This same scouting staff has monitored Kotkaniemi for three years now. The consensus was that while he may have an upside, he is not a $6 million dollar man – not even close.
I personally believe that Kotkaniemi will likely become Lars Eller 2.0 – a very good third-line centre in about three years’ time. Paying him $15-16 million to become Eller though, would be a bad business decision. The Habs, therefore, had to cut their losses. Even three years at $3M would amount to $9M to find out if their 3rd overall pick was worth waiting for.
With Montreal, Dvorak will likely improve his numbers and peak as a second-line centre. He will be a very good replacement for Danault at a lower cap hit who can add more offence. Dvorak will no longer be the main centre that the opposing teams will be keying in on as the Canadiens once again have four good lines to inflict offensive damage. Both he and Mike Hoffman and of course Cole Caufield and an improved Nick Suzuki, will all help Montreal’s power play.
Also, adding Dvorak to the roster takes some pressure off of Suzuki – not only in terms of offensive output but also thuggery. Back in the 90s, when Saku Koivu was the lone good centre for the Habs, teams targeted him to the point of career-damaging injuries. Christian Dvorak’s presence takes some heat off of Suzuki. Now throw in four lines of solid wingers, and offensively, Montreal is looking really good.
Signing Kotkaniemi would also have had grave consequences on Montreal’s cap structure and thus, would have forced the club to shed more salaries. Players would have had to have been let go in order to retain him. Now Montreal loses no one else.
Let’s also not forget that with Kotkaniemi gone, future negotiations with both Suzuki and Caufield will now be less acrimonious. Montreal is clearly following the Boston Bruins’ model of building a roster free of monster contracts (except for Carey Price’s). They have just avoided going over the cliff by imitating the disastrous Toronto Maple Leafs’ model.
I also feel that while Bergevin will never admit this, he just got a get out of jail free card for drafting Kotkaniemi third overall back in 2019. This situation created by a petty, petulant, egomaniacal Canes’ owner, was a convenient way of ridding himself of a drafting mistake.
Finally, from a PR standpoint, landing Dvorak shortly after announcing the decision to let Kotkaniemi go was a very savvy move. It showed that Bergevin was proactive and immediately dissipated most of the negativity that might have resulted if nothing was done to rectify the Canes’ actions.
With the Dvorak trade done, the Habs’ GM now needs to get himself a puck-moving defenceman. If he does that, then all the bloodletting that the Montreal Canadiens have shed this summer will have ended and the odds of them being playoff-bound will now be in their favour.
I could be wrong, and it would not be the first time, but if you were Bergevin, would you spend $15-16M over the next three years to find out if Kotkaniemi becomes a true third overall pick when you can be a bit more conservative and stop the bloodletting by acquiring Dvorak? Bergevin was the adult in the room and let Tom Dundon be Victor Newman.
Speaking of which, I have to wonder what will be Dundon’s next move? Will he go full-on Newman, buy the Canadiens, and then walk into Marc Bergevin’s office and fire him ….without realizing that he’s actually dismissed Bergy’s evil twin from Moldavia? Stay tuned for the next episode of this spicy soap opera to find out. And of course, all Tweeted translations in English will be provided by Google.
Tom Haapanen: Trading for Dvorak was, I think, the best way out of a bad situation. Dvorak has performed above what Kotkaniemi has done so far and done so consistently. Whether he will continue to outperform the young Finn remains to be seen, but clearly, Dvorak is a lower-risk option, albeit with a lower ceiling. But, at 25, and signed for four more years at a reasonable $4.45M he provides much greater cost certainty than the $6.1M single-year contract that matching would have brought with it.
This trade gives the Habs a better chance of making the playoffs — and of winning some playoff rounds this coming season, addressing the risk at C. There are still challenges in the D corps given Shea Weber’s absence, but as long as Dvorak buys into Dominique Ducharme’s system, we can now have more confidence in the forward line combinations.
I suggested last week that a trade — such as Dvorak or Dylan Strome — was the best option. Given that the effective swap is Kotkaniemi plus a second for Dvorak and a third, I think this is very much a reasonable trade. Whether it ultimately works out in the Canadiens’ favour really depends on how well Dvorak fits into the Habs’ system — and even more so how Kotkaniemi develops.
Allan Katz: I really liked Special K. He never had the development time a power centre needs to grow into his body. He only sporadically showed the drive to score that we all hungered for. So sooo young. We will find out how far he can progress over the next five years. He will one day pass where Dvorak is now, but how much better will Dvorak be? We’re going to find out, but he has a few steps on Special K not so much because of talent, but because of age.
No one can be sure how this will all play out, but Bergevin was the maestro here, for better and for worse. He drafted Kotkaniemi, oversaw his development, oversaw his usage, failed to sign him earlier (for whatever reason) and made this switcheroo of Big D for Special K happen. After this all settles, Bergevin’s status will most be affected. The bottom line is the team stepped on the Leafs, grounded the Jets, and beat the odds at Vegas’ expense to make it to the Final and get roughed up. In exchange for those amazing series, the team alienated some young players and had at least one consequence so far. They’re kind of paying the Devil for allowing them to get so far and the Devil always asks for our young ones.
So while the trade price was a tad high it was not highway robbery, more like a late charge on a credit card bill. Dvorak is a great save for a tough situation, much better than keeping the picks. Good contract with the talent to match Tatar on the scoring sheet. Dvorak is an upper middle-end sniper with grit, great attitude, possession chops, faceoff talent, sane contract, and enough potential upside to possibly surprise.
It’s sad to contemplate, but the story goes, that Bergevin wanted Dvorak as a newly acquired #2-C and Special K as the solid #3-C. Like the Beatles reunion, it isn’t going to happen.
Brian La Rose: It’s hard to call someone undervalued when it costs two high draft picks to get him but I think Dvorak is undervalued. The desert is where scoring has gone to die in recent years, a sentiment that existed in Montreal not all that long ago either. A jump in production is reasonable to expect and he already was a capable top-six centre. The price may seem steep but teams aren’t moving cost-controlled centres in the prime of their career for mid-round picks and so-so prospects. Yes, the Habs were up against the gun, so to speak, and Arizona might have been able to leverage a bit more as a result (I suspect that happened with the first-rounder and the various language surrounding that pick) but the price was a fair one.
I also want to talk a bit about the situation the Habs found themselves in. This was not strictly Bergevin’s doing as some want to suggest. It’s one thing to say he should have signed him earlier but take a look at the other unsigned RFAs – Rasmus Dahlin, Brady Tkachuk, and Quinn Hughes are still unsigned while Andrei Svechnikov only recently signed. They’re all from Kotkaniemi’s draft class. The new normal is for agents of notable players coming off entry-level deals to wait it out and hope for the offers to get better, an approach that has been established since Toronto caved to two of their young players who had that strategy in recent years. Bergevin could have upped his bridge offer from, say, $2.5 million to $3 million a year back at the beginning of August. Guess what, it still wouldn’t have gotten a deal done; his camp still would have waited it out to try to get more. That’s just how it’s done now.
Kotkaniemi did quite well for himself here – he got a big payday, the potential for more of those if he wanted to go year-to-year and just take his qualifying offer, and a chance to play in a market that’s going to be a good fit for him. But Montreal also fared pretty well as Dvorak is a more than satisfactory replacement and with his contract, he has a shot at being a core piece for a while. It was hardly an ideal situation but the Habs made the most of it.
Norm Sczyrek: I *love* the trade for Dvorak. He’s a good, two-way centre that is established at his position. He’s an excellent skater both in terms of speed and mobility. Dvorak has very good hockey sense, to go with solid playmaking skills and creativity with the puck. His faceoff percentage last season was 52.1% and 55.1% the year before. Half of his goals were scored on the power play. Christian is also a good penalty killer since his tenacity and speed help in that role. All of these attributes show why Dvorak is a major improvement on Kotkaniemi. The draft picks they gave up for him are reasonable, and the first-round pick is protected in case it becomes a top-ten selection.
Most importantly, this trade fills the number two centre position on the Habs well. Although Kotkaniemi was supposed to grow into that role, after three seasons with Montreal he had not yet fulfilled his potential as a top-six forward in this league. I was afraid that Bergevin was going to “double down” on *his* selecting Kotkaniemi in the 2018 draft, but instead, he chose the wiser decision to take the draft picks. Dvorak has been on pace for forty-five points the past two shortened seasons, while Kotkaniemi was on pace last season for twenty-nine points. Christian stands a good chance to improve those numbers next season since he should be paired with better offensive wingers than he had in Arizona. Jesperi, as a centre, is stuck in a logjam behind Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, and Vincent Trocheck, all of whom outscored him and are veterans. It’s likely he will be shifted to left wing, based on an interview by Carolina’s GM, but that could still put him as a bottom-six forward. It should be noted, that Jesperi stated a while ago that he prefers to play right wing.
Next season Montreal shifts back to the Atlantic Division, where Tampa, Boston, and Toronto are expected to be the top three teams. Montreal’s challenge will be to play well enough to fight a team like Florida for a wild card spot, while Ottawa is expected to be more competitive. The Canadiens are in a much better position having a solid second centre like Dvorak, instead of a not-yet proven player like Kotkaniemi.
Dave Woodward: This is a significant price to pay but the deal cannot be evaluated in isolation. The Habs received a first and third-round pick in 2022 from Carolina when they rightly refused to match the Kotkaniemi offer sheet. After losing Kotkaniemi, it was imperative to upgrade the centre position if the Canadiens were to contend for the playoffs this coming season. Therefore, the trade was really – in substance and ignoring the draft order and conditions relating to the 2022 first-round pick – Kotkaniemi and a 2024 second-rounder for Dvorak and a 2022 third-round pick.
Since Dvorak has been toiling in the desert during his NHL career, many NHL fans may not be familiar with the player. This scribbler lives in London, Ontario and watched Dvorak when he was with the London Knights. Dvorak was the captain of the 2015-16 Memorial Cup team and his stat lines in his last two years in Junior were stellar (2014-15: 66G, 48G, 68A, 109P, +33; 2015-16: 59G, 52G, 69A, 121P, +52). In his last season with the Knights, he centred a line featuring himself, Matthew Tkachuk and Mitch Marner, likely the best line in the CHL that season. While success in junior hockey does not always translate to the NHL and Marner and Tkachuk have, to date, enjoyed more success than Dvorak at the NHL level, it is worth noting that Dvorak has not played with wingers in Arizona that are of the same calibre as the Canadiens’ wingers. For this reason, Dvorak may have more offensive upside at the NHL level than he has shown thus far.
While Dvorak is not going to be Danault defensively, he plays a strong two-way game and has won anywhere from 51-55% (approximately) of his faceoffs in his five NHL seasons. With the Coyotes, Dvorak also shouldered more than his share of defensive zone faceoffs. He is effective on the power play (particularly in the slot and in tight which may complement the skills of Hoffman and Caufield) and can kill penalties. Dvorak’s numbers are not outstanding (56G, 17G, 14A, 31P, -11 in 2020-21) but he has established himself as a solid second-line NHL centre while playing on a sub-par team. Offensively, Dvorak, 25, is an upgrade versus Danault and certainly an upgrade on what we have seen defensively and offensively from 21-year-old Kotkaniemi thus far.
Dvorak’s contract runs for four more years with a cap hit of $4.45 million which is a reasonable price for a second-line centre. While there may have been other alternatives (such as Tomas Hertl who is signed for only one more year at a cap hit of more than $5 million), Dvorak’s contract is a good fit, particularly when one considers that the cap will likely be stagnant for the foreseeable future. Dvorak also addresses the Canadiens’ need for a second-line centre for four years, thereby avoiding a signing or trade for another centre in the near term.
The evaluation of the trade really comes down to whether the Canadiens should have exchanged a second-round pick and Kotkaniemi for a third-round pick and Dvorak. I would make that trade without any hesitation. Dvorak is a more established and better NHL player than Kotkaniemi is now. While Kotkaniemi will likely improve, since his rookie season, his development path has been uneven and inconsistent, particularly in the regular season. Kotkaniemi has upside but he may also never become the player Dvorak already is. As for the upcoming season, Habs fans should feel a lot more confident with Christian Dvorak as the Canadiens’ second-line centre than Kotkaniemi. Kotkaniemi’s status as the second-line centre going into next season was not a prospect that was eliciting a lot of confidence at least in the short term.
Of course, in a stagnant cap environment, the Kotkaniemi contract/offer sheet makes the trade even more attractive. Why spend $6.1 million on Kotkaniemi (and $6.1 million the year after to qualify him (or lose him for nothing and let him go market as a UFA)) when an established NHL second-line centre is available for $4.45 million?
Dvorak is an upgrade on Kotkaniemi with a much better contract. Dvorak also brings stability to the second line centre position. That is worth a lot more than an exchange of second and third-round picks. This was a shrewd piece of work by Marc Bergevin.