In the dog days of summer, NHL news can often be hard to come by. Debates dry up and storylines for the new season haven't had time to take shape through a training camp. So for people itching to talk about something fresh, the Carolina Hurricanes' one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet given to and signed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi was the perfect late-August fodder.
And the cherry on top was the perceived rivalry here. The Montreal Canadiens, of course, signed Carolina's Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet in 2019 that was supposedly designed to try and pinch and challenge new Canes owner Tom Dundon. Aho's offer sheet was for five years with an $8.454 million AAV and the signing bonuses were maxed out — Aho won't make more than $775,000 base salary in any year of the deal.
Carolina matched it, though, because the AAV itself wasn't really above market value. It was the expected cost to retain the player.
So, Carolina's offer sheet to Kotkaniemi was seen as a bit of revenge. His signing bonus was just $20, to match Aho's jersey number. One tweet announcing the signing from the team account was in French and they just had a lot of fun with it on social media. The $6.1 million AAV ultimately was too much for the Canadiens to absorb, so they let him go, took the draft picks and flipped them for another centre, Christian Dvorak.
Naturally, most wondered if this move motivated by Montreal's previous attempt to snag Aho. Canes owner Tom Dundon explained that it was actually a series of events that led Carolina to this point and the salary-cap picture they were left with ultimately helped them make a call.
"It was probably a little more fluid than just make a final decision," Dundon told Writer's Bloc on 590 The FAN. "A lot of things happened this summer and in the past. Maybe you try to extend a player and you can't extend him, so they end up traded so you have more cap space in the future to sign a free agent.
"We have things that we consider all the time, but you never know which of those is going to come to fruition until other things happen and so just the way the summer laid out we weren't able to sign a couple things we tried to do and then you ended up with a bunch of cap space.
"The idea of us leaving cap space unused is pretty frustrating. In essence, it's an asset and you don't want it to go wasted. And so we had some and then you look at your opportunities to use it. That ended up being the one we decided to go with."
Among the player personnel choices that allowed the Canes to have the cap space to be in position to sign an offer sheet was an inability to re-sign star defenceman Dougie Hamilton, who ended up in New Jersey with a $9 million AAV. Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic was traded to Detroit instead of given a new contract, and then he signed a $3 million AAV there.
The Canes, with a strong roster that has Stanley Cup aspirations, saw an opportunity here to put pressure on a team with cap issues by offering Kotkaniemi an AAV that was above his market value. They'll have to qualify him at $6.1 million after the season or else he'll become a free agent, but on the 31 Thoughts Podcast Elliotte Friedman mentioned the possibility of some sort of multi-year extension at a lesser number already roughly being in place.
Still, it's a lot of money up front for a five-goal, 20-point player who was a healthy scratch in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — granted there's a lot of upside in this 21-year-old third-overall draft choice. Though he is a centre first and mostly played that position in Montreal, the Hurricanes are deep down the middle and could shift Kotkaniemi back to the wing and bring him along slower. Ultimately, Dundon says the decision to sign Kotkaniemi was a hockey one, and not an emotional one.
"The idea we would do it for revenge, or to get even, is silly," Dundon said. "We just want to win and we would only do something we thought would help us win more games. And the conclusion of our scouts and internally was this was a player with a big future and maybe his brand was down a little bit because of the way the season ended, but our folks had a lot of conviction in his future."
And those social media posts that seemed to poke fun at the Canadiens and the failed Aho offer sheet? Was revenge a motivation there?
"We're all in the entertainment business and we don't have a league if people aren't entertained by it, and so when it worked out the way it did our philosophy organizationally on the business side is have as much fun, get as much attention as you can." Dundon said.
"Maybe we should have thought about how the other team would feel about it, but candidly we were just doing it because it was interesting, selfishly, for our team and our fans. That's really all it was. We didn't go into this with a plan. It was kind of a last second thing."
In fact, Dundon's opinion was that offer sheets aren't the best way to acquire players. He confirmed the Canes tried to trade for Kotkaniemi and would have preferred that outcome.
The whole saga with the Canes and Kotkaniemi has re-opened the conversation about offer sheets and why they aren't used more often as a weapon. Today, we are two weeks out from the opening of training camps and a number of high quality RFAs — Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brady Tkachuk to name a few — are still without contracts.
Does Dundon think his team's actions will inspire more offer sheets in the future?
"I don't think that at all. I think this was a very unique situation. I can't think of another situation where it's a really good idea," he said.
Dundon continued: "I think this was just a very unique set of circumstances. I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't happen again for a long, long time. It's not part of our strategy to build our team."