Amidst a busy off-season with a couple high stakes moves, arguably the most interesting was the Hurricanes’ aggressive move to offer sheet Jesperi Kotkaniemi and ultimately add him to the roster when Montreal decided not to match the offer.
The deal was a costly one costing a first round and third round draft pick as compensation and also requiring a $6.1 million one-year contract that was at a significant premium to Kotkaniemi’s level of play in 2020-21.
The range of possible outcomes on this deal is incredibly wide, so I will write up both ends of the spectrum with time of course being the ultimate arbiter on if whether the actual result is one or the other or somewhere in the middle.
Being selected third in the 2018 NHL draft right behind behind Andrei Svechnikov, the young Finnish player comes with high draft pedigree and potential. He is 21 years old with a ton of upside. But a significant difference between he and Svechnikov is level of development/proven production so far. In my opinion Svechnikov’s 2020-21 campaign was moderately disappointing and a small step backward for him, but he still finished with 15 goals and 42 points in 55 games which makes for a 22-goal and 63-point pace over an 82-game season. That is maybe a bit short of a point per target but still legitimate top half of the roster scoring. In 56 games, Kotkaniemi collected 5 goals and 20 points for a 9-goal and 29-point pace over 82 games. While the potential is definitely there Kotkaniemi has not yet proven that he can produce regularly at the NHL level. Scoring-wise on the 2020-21 Canes, Kotkaniemi is equaled by depth forwards Brock McGinn, Warren Foegele and Jesper Fast. But as noted above, Kotkaniemi’s ceiling is much higher than that group because of his skill set.
The deal and contract
The offer sheet that the Hurricanes signed Kotkaniemi to was actually brilliant in terms of putting the Canadiens in a tough spot both for 2021-22 and possibly again next summer if they matched to keep him. A fair contract coming off his 2020-21 production would have been roughly half the $6.1 million that the Hurricanes will pay him. In addition, the high salary for a one-year deal will also create problems next summer if Kotkaniemi has another ‘meh/still developing’ 2021-22 season. The NHL rules mean that to qualify Kotkaniemi after the 2021-22 season will require another $6 million contract offer. If he makes strides and is a productive top six forward in 2020-21, that will be doable. But if instead Kotkaniemi’s fourth year in the NHL is similar to his third and sees him exit still as a young skilled player with potential but not much for proof, that price will be significantly above market value just like it is this year.
With Montreal instead accepting compensation of a first round and a third round draft pick, the Hurricanes are now on the hook for this contract situation both for 2021-22 but also going forward.
The potential positive outcome
The Carolina Hurricanes are a team that has made significant strides under three years of Rod Brind’Amour’s leadership. Only three years ago, the goal was very simply just to get back into the playoffs and end a long drought. Entering the 2021-22, the Hurricanes will be among the teams expected to make the playoffs. But having reached that plateau, the Hurricanes are a team that needs to find a way to improve. Per yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, now up against the salary cap and with improved depth that makes meaningfully improving the bottom part of the roster challenging. the Hurricanes more so maybe need to take a bit of a risk/reward shot to move the needle. Kotkaniemi would be exactly that. If Kotkaniemi finds the higher level that one figures to be within his reach, the Hurricanes will have managed to add another top six scoring wing who is only 21 years old and with upside and done so without giving up a roster player. Even with the expensive futures price of two high draft picks that would be a win especially in the context of trying to win now. Also, though the price would be a steep one if it does not work out, the one-year deal does give the Hurricanes the ability to bail on a missed try after only one year versus making a long-term commitment. Though the focus of the deal is clearly aimed at upside potential, there is some value in having an exit point that decreases risk.
The potential negative outcome
As noted above, Kotkaniemi is as of yet unproven. He has shown flashes of growing into his draft pedigree and had productive stretches in the 2021 NHL Playoffs, but he also scored at a 29-point pace in 2020-21 even with power play ice time. If he repeats that, he will be significantly overpaid and also a player that the Hurricanes might have to consider letting go for nothing at the end of the year versus going double or nothing with a $6 million qualifying offer for the next year. That would be a costly miss spending higher-end draft picks that could have been used for a more proven player.
Where I land?
At a basic level, I like the idea of going for it to try to upgrade a team that is better and no longer has easy paths to getting better. Standing pat and not taking a shot at getting better is not a great course at this point in the Hurricanes rise. So in that regard, this move definitely qualifies as taking a shot to make a meaningful improvement.
Interesting is considering other possible options for the salary spent and draft picks traded. No doubt there are longer-term risk issues with Dougie Hamilton’s new $9 million salary that spans seven years, but looking only at 2021-22, would you rather have Dougie Hamilton and a first and third round draft pick to spend at the trade deadline? Or would you rather have Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ian Cole whose salaries equal exactly the same $9 million?
The cost of this deal is on the higher end of the spectrum considering what was given up in terms of draft picks and salary, and the risk is also high placing a big bet on a skilled but relatively unproven player.
It is difficult to know what other options might have been available for the cost of a couple draft picks, but if I was general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, I would have had a preference for more of a proven player for the budget and assets spent. That said, this move definitely has the potential to be a move one looks back on at the end of the season if Kotkaniemi benefits from the new environment, quickly finds a higher gear and adds a top six scoring wing to the mix.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Deal details aside, what are your thoughts on Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the potential to be a difference-maker?
2) What are your thoughts on the deal itself including the risk/reward of such a sizable investment for a player who is unproven but with high potential?