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What should the Habs do with Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet from Carolina?  Our writers discuss whether they should match or move on from the third-overall pick in 2018.

Terry Costaris: I was having a wonderful Saturday in the dog days of August, when, late at night, I read the news about Kotkaniemi signing this monster of a contract. For the rest of the evening, I felt as if I was punched in the gut. Many wheels were spinning in my head trying to think this through in terms of what Marc Bergevin must do.

The next day, I woke up feeling groggy; having tossed and turned all night, and, reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Bergevin has to let Kotkaniemi go.

He is a slowly developing centre. He is two years away from nearing full/impactful maturity. I realize that if the Habs let him leave, he’ll be a 3rd overall pick traded for a likely much lower-valued first and third.

Montreal, and most teams for that matter, have a poor history of drafting first picks in the 20-32 range. So, the odds are highly stacked against them landing a prospect, a centre to boot, at this range who matches Kotkaniemi’s potential. And, even if they do, he will not make it for another 3-4 years. This throws a major wrench in Montreal’s projected ascent in the immediate future.

Having said this, if the Habs bite the bullet and sign Kotkaniemi, this would deeply impact future signings – particularly the contracts for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield. It would also be extremely risky.

By signing this amazingly rich contract, Kotkaniemi now has to take his current real valuation of being a $2.5-3 million dollar a year player and perform as a $6.1 million one. If he remains with the Habs, Montreal’s fan cruel fanbase would be brutal on him if he fails to live up to his new billing.

Kotkaniemi would also have to do this while his father is undergoing cancer treatment and the psychological toll that this likely will have on his performance. Furthermore, because of the Canadiens’ amazing playoff run, he only has had two months to up his game in a number of areas that have slowed his development. The odds of playing as a $6M-plus centre, then, are stacked against him.

In addition, what if Kotkaniemi is signed but suffers a season-ending injury? The way that the contract is structured, the Habs would be forced to qualifying him at $6.1 million after next season with only a limited knowledge of his progress. This would make things really dicey for the Canadiens.

The Carolina Hurricanes have literally given Montreal a poison pill here. Or for those of you who watched Bugs Bunny growing up, a proverbial exploding cigar.

What a mess. All due to a petulant, rich and petty team owner deciding to punish Montreal for giving Sebastian Aho an offer sheet that actually was a superb deal for both the player and the Canes.

To use an old expression, they’ve cut their nose to spite their face.

So, what would I do? I would call up Winnipeg and offer them Montreal’s first plus Carolina’s along with a prospect for Pierre-Luc Dubois. He doesn’t appear to be the right fit for them that they were hoping for and Winnipeg could then enter the 2022 draft with three first-round picks including their own or perhaps participate in a three-way deal of some sorts. I’m just throwing pasta on the wall to see what sticks here.

Los Angeles has a surplus of centres. Perhaps, Bergevin can cut a similar deal.

Alternatively, he can get himself a free agent like Tyler Bozak for the year and see what comes available next summer, thus allowing the Canadiens to keep their prospects and additional picks.

So, yes, Marc Bergevin is in a pickle but he still has some options here.

Finally, I have to say that while I get that professional sport is a business, man is this decision by Kotkaniemi massively disappointing. It’s a real kick in the teeth to Montreal’s fanbase. The $20 bonus was a totally classless move that both he and his agent should have said no to.

I don’t blame Kotkaniemi for his decision to leave. Over the next two years, when he’s just 23 years old, he is going to earn more money than 99.9% of the planet’s inhabitants do in 5-10 lifetimes. And, it’ll likely be in South Carolina taxes. He better bring some earplugs every time he enters the Bell Centre though. There will be some world-class jeering awaiting him over the next decade.

Tom Haapanen: The offer sheet looks like a lose-lose proposition for the Habs, but Carolina would not be getting Kotkaniemi at a bargain price at $6.1M, either, with subsequent qualifying offers keeping his RFA costs in the same range. This kind of spiteful behaviour by an owner reminds me of a certain H. Ballard …

But what should the Habs do? While $6.1M/year hurts a lot, so does losing your projected second-line centre, and one of only four centres in the organization with any substantial NHL experience: the two draft picks do not sufficiently compensate for that. So, the best option appears to be in trying to find an alternative to Kotkaniemi at centre and finding one NOW. The UFA pickings are very slim (and old) at this point so the best options appear to be in trading for someone such as Christian Dvorak (Arizona) or Dylan Strome (Chicago), who appear to be available. Both are still young, capable of a middle-six assignment and with salaries well below that $6.1M mark. If Bergevin can manage to deal for one of them by the weekend, he might be able to flip the Carolina picks and a sweetener to secure a young centre both for this season and the future.

If the trade and UFA options don’t pan out, letting Kotkaniemi go would give the Habs two more picks for next year’s draft, for a total of 12. It’s expected to be a deep draft, but then the Habs better write off the upcoming season — and Price’s cup window. Would Geoff Molson have the stomach for a full rebuild?

And that leaves the option of matching the offer. Kotkaniemi may yet earn a $6M salary, but he is clearly not there yet. He is still just barely 21, and he has shown flashes of talent and power forward potential, but his seasons so far have been plagued by inconsistency. Even if the contract wouldn’t necessarily result in salary inflation for the Habs, it would be challenging especially in 2022-23 and 2023-24. An efficient contract it would not be.

And that really leaves the trade option as the most desirable one, assuming that Bergevin is able to negotiate a good trade. Let the Canes enjoy the $6M contract and its subsequent qualifying offers and renewals. As much as I like Kotkaniemi, it’s time to move on.

Allan Katz: If the Habs can find a trade partner for someone who can replace and surpass Jesperi, and they have to find that team NOW, then let the lad go. BUT and this is a (BIG BUTT) if internally the Habs believe Jesperi can soon become a POWER-CENTRE that can score 20 goals and 30 assists and can approach that this year, they have to match.

We have seen Kotkaniemi fight and he was vicious; I heard his grandmother read him the riot act for doing it, but somewhere inside this Friendly-Finn is a fire that needs to be lit. The bet both teams have to consider is will that fire ever be fully lit and the wild thing is … it’s kind of hard to tell.

There was one moment (surely more than one) in the playoffs and Kotkaniemi was near the net, shifted and had a clear shot on a surprised out of position goalie. Jesperi passed the puck, the play died there, not even a shot. Maybe he has no fire.

But here’s the thing … he’s soooo young. He’s going to get better.

I started writing this with the intention of stating the team should let him go. I changed my mind; I think they should match.

Having said that, I believe the Bopper will trade for another centre and take the two draft picks.

Brian La Rose: My head is telling me to take the picks for all of the reasons our other writers cover throughout this article so I’m going to go in the opposite direction and look at why they should keep him just so it’s not all repetitive.

We’ve seen the speculation that Carolina has talked about the framework of a long-term extension when he’s eligible, perhaps at a slightly lower price tag than this one.  If that’s the case, I’d certainly be open to signing him to that type of deal, one that carries a bit of risk on both sides.  To do that, they’d have to match this offer.

And as for possibly inflating Suzuki’s next contract, it’s a fair point to suggest but it was already going to be higher than what this offer sheet is for.  It makes it a little harder to afford Suzuki’s next deal but I don’t think it’s drastically going to up the asking price.

In terms of affordability, this is perhaps an opportunity to correct an issue that has existed for a while now in that Montreal has too many high-paid depth players.  Depth is great but talent is better and Kotkaniemi has the potential to be much more talented.  If matching forces them to move one of their high-paid role pieces, that might not be a bad thing.  If I have to pick between letting him go for picks or letting a depth forward go to afford this contract, I think the latter is more appealing from a roster-building perspective.

I’m far from certain that they’ll match and if he goes, it does give them some trade assets to try to fill that vacancy although the options aren’t exactly plentiful at this point.  (Bergevin and his counterpart in Arizona Bill Armstrong will be chatting plenty over the next few days, I’m sure.)  But losing Kotkaniemi for this type of return would certainly be a tough pill to swallow and if the opportunity is there for a slightly cheaper long-term extension, that’s a door I wouldn’t mind trying to explore so perhaps matching is the better move even if it comes at a hefty short-term cost.

Paul MacLeod: This news really makes me angry with Bergevin: angry that he started this with Carolina and didn’t make a more effective offer sheet at the time and angry that he did not get Kotkaniemi signed before this happened.

That said, Kotkaniemi is not worth over $6 million per year for each of the next two years (knowing the qualifying offer would be for that amount as well). He is not worth skewing the salary structure completely out of whack with a Suzuki deal looming.

Even though the Habs will once again be in a position of extreme weakness at centre, I believe that the Habs should not, must not match this offer. Damn Don Waddell and Tom Dundon … and Bergevin. I still think Kotkaniemi will have a great future, but I no longer see it happening in Montreal.

Naqeeb Shaikh: They should let Kotkaniemi go. $6.1 million for him whether it’s for one year or even multiple years is ludicrous regardless of whether it eats up much of the cap room or not. His performance the past three years has been Jekyll and Hyde-ish.

His playoffs have been good, but his regular season performances have been inconsistent. It won’t serve him or the team well if the offer sheet is matched since he was benched for the last two games of the Stanley Cup Final.  The end-of-year comments Bergevin made weren’t exactly great either and if he comes back next year at $6.1 million, you have to think how the pressure of living up to that salary will weigh on him, can he rise to the occasion? He’s shown that he can handle the pressure of playing in Montreal moderately at best.

Lastly, with his $6.1 million figure, it can have a negative impact on the team chemistry and morale, especially considering Suzuki’s contract status and where Kotkaniemi is on the depth chart.  If they still had Danault, Kotkaniemi would be a 3rd line centre.

What goes around comes around for Bergevin. Here’s to a second chance at getting a puck-moving defenceman and improving the offence using the potential compensation from not matching this offer sheet.

Norm Szcyrek: To me, the offer sheet to Kotkaniemi is based purely on revenge. Don Waddell was forced to sign Sebastian Aho, his #1 centre, to a long-term contract based on an offer sheet Marc Bergevin sent to Aho around two years ago.  The $20 signing bonus (Aho’s jersey number), the wording of the press release (which was almost verbatim what Montreal did in the summer of 2019), Carolina tweeting the news in French, and the Hurricanes changing their Twitter profile to French, are all evidence of vengeance.

When it comes to revenge, there are two great quotes that come to mind that fit this situation.  The first is “revenge is a dish best served cold”.  From Carolina’s perspective, that is what they intended. They saw an opportunity to make this move that they knew would be unexpected by Montreal and appear to be cold-blooded.

The next quote I feel works in this situation is, “if you want revenge, then dig two graves”.  To me, Waddell must strongly believe that Montreal will match this offer which will cause an immediate impact to put them over the salary cap. It will also cause a ripple effect since Suzuki will become an RFA next offseason.  Montreal must have expected to sign Kotkaniemi to a bridge deal of less than half the Carolina offer.

If Montreal is wise, they will not match this offer sheet.  Although it is only for one year, it is practically a two-year locked in contract, since Jesperi will be arbitration-eligible and cannot be offered a lot less than the same amount ($5.1M minimum if they take him to arbitration with an 85% offer) nor can he be traded.  If Montreal matches and he underperforms, they will still be expected to keep him.  If Carolina keeps Kotkaniemi and he struggles, they can either not tender him or go to arbitration and walk away from the arbitrator’s decision. Yes, it would cost them the first and third-round pick, but they are a deeper team than Montreal, have had more successful regular seasons the past few years and have a stronger core.  Carolina can afford to dig that second grave, but Montreal cannot afford to step into it.

Although I like Jesperi as a player, he has not developed as much as I had hoped to date.  Yes, he is still young, and the argument about him being “rushed” into the league as an 18-year-old is fitting.  I cannot help but draw a parallel to him with Alex Galchenyuk.  Like him, Kotkaniemi seems to be falling in love with his shot, which is an area that I see improvement on from his rookie season.  However, there are several other parts to his game that are still lacking.  His playmaking, passing and defensive games are not as developed.  You can tell that he’s getting more physically mature since he responds better to contact situations now than he did three seasons ago.  I am not sure anymore about his hockey sense and he is very inconsistent.  He would likely be the Habs second-line centre due to the absence of Phillip Danault this fall, but in Carolina, he would be blocked at centre by Aho, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal. Since all of them scored more points than Kotkaniemi, he would be forced to the wing and would likely be a bottom-six forward.

If Montreal lets Jesperi go to Carolina, then there are a few veteran UFA’s still available that can score the 20+ points he produced last short-season as a stop-gap measure.  Bergevin could also try to make a trade to fill in that gap.  Ryan Poehling will also get a better opportunity to play in Kotkaniemi’s absence. All of these reasons are why Montreal must not match the offer sheet. However, I am not confident that Bergevin will agree.

Dave Woodward: The Carolina Hurricanes have exacted their revenge on the Canadiens for signing Aho to an offer sheet in 2019. By signing Kotkaniemi to a contract that pays him double what he’s worth, the Canadiens have been placed in a difficult position. With the departure of Danault, the Habs were already thin down the middle going into training camp. With this offer sheet, the Canadiens have one potential first line centre and three fourth line centres. With this lineup, the Canadiens will not be competing for a playoff spot this season.

So Bergevin has to match the offer sheet? Not so fast. At this point, Kotkaniemi is not even close to a $6 million AAV player. While the young centre has the potential to develop into a number two centre, he is not anywhere close to reaching that level yet. The young Finn is consistently inconsistent. He shows flashes of his skill set for a few games and then he disappears for a few weeks. While his physicality has improved this past season, Kotkaniemi was knocked around and off his skates at will, particularly during his disappointing sophomore season. His skating, by his own admission, needs work.

With the Canadiens’ dismal record of first round draft picks over the last fifteen years (rivalled only by their equally abysmal player development record over the same period), there may be a temptation to match the offer sheet for the former third overall pick. After all, the Canadiens do not want to add Kotkaniemi’s name to the scrap heap of first round picks that did not pan out for one reason or another. However, keeping Kotkaniemi for that reason would be a mistake. The Canadiens must evaluate the player without regard to his draft position and their past futility in the first round.

At this point, while it is still too early to fully evaluate players taken in the 2018 draft, it is clear that Bergevin and Trevor Timmins made the wrong pick. Brady Tkachuk and Quinn Hughes, to name only two, were rated ahead of Kotkaniemi and should have been drafted earlier. There is no point doubling down on that mistake and keeping Kotkaniemi because he was picked third overall. Better to assess what he is now, the value of the first and third round picks you will receive as compensation, assess the fair value for the player he may become (without regard to where he was drafted and what you hoped he could become) and, just as importantly, evaluate how the Kotkaniemi contract will impact the team’s salary structure.

The first and third round picks will likely be late in these rounds as Carolina projects to be a potential contender next season. Nonetheless, the Canadiens have a lot of picks in the 2022 draft and those picks (and players or prospects) could be used to acquire an established centre at a more reasonable salary.

Matching the offer sheet would complicate the team’s salary structure for their forwards. Is Jesperi Kotkaniemi worth just $400,000 less than Brendan Gallagher? More than Josh Anderson and about $2 million more than Tyler Toffoli? Matching the offer sheet would also complicate the upcoming negotiations with Nick Suzuki and Alexander Romanov a year from now and Cole Caufield the following offseason.

Bergevin should use the next several days to find other opportunities to strengthen the team down the middle and deploying the compensatory picks (and perhaps other assets) would likely provide the Habs with some better options than paying $6 million to a player who has only earned a modest bridge deal.

There is another reason why the Canadiens should not match the offer sheet. The pettiness of the Hurricanes and the revenge factor for the Aho offer sheet was plain for all to see. The press release announcing the signing closely mirrored Bergevin’s statement on the Aho offer sheet two years ago and was released in French and English. Most importantly, the terms of the contract included a $20 signing bonus (Aho’s wears No. 20 for the Hurricanes). The contract terms would have required Kotkaniemi to agree to them. That is a window into Kotkaniemi’s character (or lack thereof) and is also a reflection of Kotkaniemi’s relationship with the Canadiens. Kotkaniemi knew that the Habs had the opportunity to match the contract and could have refused to go along with the more provocative elements of the Hurricanes’ game plan. Instead, he signed off on the deal, including the “payback” provisions.

Since the offer sheet, stories have emerged that Kotkaniemi did not want to return to Montreal after being a healthy scratch in the Stanley Cup Final. One might reasonably counsel Mr. Kotkaniemi that he could have performed more consistently if he wanted to be in the lineup. However, he instead chose to be party to the Hurricanes’ efforts to avenge the Aho signing. Would the Canadiens want the player back after that? Not likely.

Even if Bergevin cannot add a centreman before making this decision, the Canadiens should admit their mistake and let Carolina overpay Kotkaniemi. Let Kotkaniemi walk.