Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers Jesperi Kotkaniemi through 33 games from a couple different levels.
Worth noting is that it is still a bit early to make any kind of final judgment on Kotkaniemi. The best recent reference point for patience with players adjusting to a new team is Dougie Hamilton. He was mostly below the ‘just bad’ line early on as a Hurricane, but at the midway point of that first season things suddenly clicked and he played at a much higher level after that. Kotkaniemi is just approaching that 40-game mark, so assessing him based on what we have seen so far has a good chance to be premature.
Disclaimer aside, below is an eclectic set of thoughts on Kotkaniemi so far.
1) Wing or center
The starting point for Kotkaniemi was that the team hoped he could move to wing and add another finisher ideally to the top 6. He started the year on Aho’s line but was ‘meh’ at best in that audition. He did not produce much offensively and looked disinterested at times in terms of doing the lunch pail kind of work winning/keeping pucks on the boards. The result was some bouncing around the lineup. He seemed to finally gain his footing when demoted to the fourth line but moved back to his natural center position. He looked much more capable with the puck on his stick a bit more and functioning in more of a playmaker’s role. He collected a few assists, scored some too and could have hit the scoresheet a bit more if the fourth line was stocked with more finishing skill. Since then Kotkaniemi has seen more ice time at wing being moved back over and promoted up to Staal’s line. That next phase is still early, but thus far there are reasons to hope that the offense will move back to wing with him which is significant. We will see how things go if Kotkaniemi remains at wing, but through 33 games, I would say that he looked significantly better as a center.
2) The problem with Kotkaniemi as a center
If management were building a team at random, it might not be a big deal if Kotkaniemi slotted at wing or center, but for the Hurricanes at least near-term, I think Kotkaniemi as a center is sub-optimal. Being deeper and having better players in any slot is good, but what the Hurricanes ideally need in Kotkaniemi is another scoring wing. An injury could change things, but right now the Canes are three deep at center with Aho, Trocheck and Staal, and as far as building a capable checking line, Stepan was competent for that role and also capable of filling a penalty kill slot. Though Kotkaniemi brings significantly more offense to that C4 slot, that is unlikely to significantly move the needle since there are not enough finishing wings to convert chances to goals at a high enough rate. That is mostly what we saw from his first stint in that slot. So while Kotkaniemi playing well as a center makes the Canes deeper, I do not think it does so in a way that makes the team significantly better. Further, it still leaves the team trying to find more scoring from the wing. Seth Jarvis helps a bit in that regard, but unless Svechnikov and/or Necas take a sizable step forward in terms of goal scoring, I think the team looks comparable but not really better than last year in that regard.
3) The $ matter
Piggybacking on #1 and #2, Kotkaniem’s $6 million salary also matters. Adding a great fourth line center is a good thing. Paying $6.1 million for a great fourth line center does not work for the slot. The money would be better spent upgrading the top half of the lineup (which was the aim with signing Kotkaniemi). Hindsight being 20/20, the Hurricanes (and any other NHL team) could have done well by investing about that amount in Vladimir Tarasenko who seemed to be readily available during the off-season. For $1.4 million more (and maybe even less as St. Louis might have kept a bit of the contract for the right deal), a bona fide top line scoring wing could have been had. This is why Kotkaniemi was moved back to wing on Staal’s line despite clicking as a center. The hope, which is a reasonable one, is that with some time to adjust to his new team and with confidence now in hand that Kotkaniemi could find a higher gear in a second audition at wing. Longer-term, Kotkaniemi’s ability to slot as a wing is also significant. With the Hurricanes destined to be up against the salary cap ceiling in the coming years, management will be forced to make some either/or choices. As a center, Kotkaniemi becomes an either/or choice with Vincent Trocheck who is also a free agent this summer and figures to have a salary for his next contract in the vicinity of the $6.1 million qualifying offer that the Hurricanes will have to make next summer to keep Kotkaniemi’s rights.
4) Potentially interesting off-season situation
To keep Kotkaniemi, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, the Hurricanes must put forward a qualifying offer of $6.1 million. If Kotkaniemi has a strong second half like Hamilton did after adjusting, that could be an easy decision. But on the current trajectory, the Hurricanes will need to decide if the team wants to commit $6.1 million again to a player whose production and role looks like that of a third line forward with potential upside. If the Hurricanes do not make the qualifying offer, then Kotkaniemi would become an unrestricted free agent who could sign with any team. If it is the case that Kotkaniemi wants to stay with the Canes versus quickly bouncing to a third team so early in his career, might it be possible for the Hurricanes to negotiate a two or three year deal at a significantly lower per year cost? That could be possible if Kotkaniemi and his agent realize that he will not get anything close to $6 million as an unrestricted free agent. Regardless, the high qualifying offer required to keep Kotkaniemi’s rights could make for an interesting negotiation leading up to having to decide whether to do that or not.
5) The next 20 games could be telling
As noted above, Kotkaniemi has been playing at wing again. I will be watching closely to see if after an adjustment period and with some newfound confidence he finds a higher gear. He has shifts where he seems willing/capable to forecheck hard and grind on the boards which fits what Brind’Amour’s forechecking system needs, but in the same games he still has too many stretches where he is soft on pucks on the walls in both ends and seems to play a read/react role like a center instead of a pursuit role as a forechecking wing. The Holy Grail is for Kotkaniemi to keep the offensive upside he showed back at center but do it while playing wing and doing the lunch pail work on the walls and on the forecheck.
What say you Canes fans?
1) In general, what is your assessment/impression of Jesperi Kotkaniemi so far?
2) Do you see him as capable of settling in as a scoring wing, or do you think he maybe is better-suited as a center even if it means adding depth at the bottom lineup instead of bolstering the top of it?
3) What does your crystal ball say for Kotkaniemi’s remainder of the 2021-22 NHL season?