Kotkaniemi returns to Montreal with opportunity to deepen Canadiens' slump

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin explains why he isn’t going to make any immediate changes to the team as they look for their first win.

MONTREAL — Think back to the $6.1-million offer sheet tendered to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the cheeky $20 signing bonus and the $15 tacked onto that enormous salary, and the mocking tweets that followed from the Carolina Hurricanes.

It was revenge served cold to the Montreal Canadiens for offer-sheeting Hurricanes superstar Sebastian Aho two years earlier.

Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell should have just leaned into it when he spoke the day after Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said he wasn’t matching or retaining Kotkaniemi’s services.

Instead, he said, “it was certainly not revenge,” before offering an explanation that appears even more ridiculous today than it did in early September.

“We talked about this player, we know this player,” Waddell continued. “We had an opportunity to use the CBA as other teams have in the past to try to acquire a 21-year-old player. To us it was all about the player. We looked around the league and thought this made the most sense from where we are as a team. As you know, we have a couple of other good Finnish players on our team (Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen) and thought this would be a great fit.”

On Thursday, when Kotkaniemi returns to Montreal to face the Canadiens, the team that drafted him third overall in 2018, he’ll start next to Aho and Teravainen. With an opportunity to burn his old team, he may author the performance of his life.

But the idea that he fits best there is almost as farfetched as suggesting that, after scouring the entire league, the Hurricanes had no better option to fill out their top-six group than by paying a centre with 22 goals and 62 points in 173 games three times what he’s worth to play wing.

Not that Kotkaniemi’s complaining about it. The big Finn, who said his development with the Canadiens probably could’ve been handled better, spoke glowingly about his new life and role in Carolina on Tuesday.

“It’s been real great,” he said. “It’s a great spot, guys are really great here. Whole team is working really hard, and you can see that on the ice. It’s great to be part of that kind of team.”

Of how he’s been used, Kotkaniemi added, “We don’t really have a one, two, three or fourth line; we have four really good lines. So, even if you’re just in the lineup, that’s a really good thing. It’s really hard competition over here. You need to do your best every day and just try to fit in.”

Never mind that he started both Hurricanes games on the top line and moved to the fourth in the second one, that he maxed out at 12:09 and has only played only 1:27 on a power play that’s been put to work nine times already.

As for plans to return to centre down the road — a path currently blocked by the depth at the position, with Aho up top and Vincent Trochek, Jordan Staal and Derek Stepan already forcing a better player than Kotkaniemi in Martin Necas to play wing — those haven’t even been discussed.

“We really haven’t had time for that yet,” Kotkaniemi said. “There’s a lot of new stuff coming towards me. New game plan for me and new winger stuff. There’s a lot of new stuff we need to get into, so I think we’re going to have that talk a little later. It’s not time for that yet.”

Maybe it will be next summer, when Trocheck and Stepan potentially opt for unrestricted free agency.

Perhaps Kotkaniemi will be able to assume that role with a little less pressure on his shoulders — and a much lighter contract than the one he’s signed to for this season.

Or maybe he’ll just hold out for a $6.1-million qualifying offer.

The Hurricanes should be fine with however it plays out. They got what they wanted out of this deal the day it was signed: forcing the Canadiens to choose between letting go of a prospect they sunk three years of development into — one Bergevin said, after the 2020 playoffs, was one of two centres the Canadiens could build around over the next decade — and matching the offer and thus screwing up their entire salary structure.

It was a cool, devious strike at a team that had already lost Phillip Danault at centre and would be stuck at a deficit at the position regardless of their corresponding move to acquire Christian Dvorak via trade after turning away from Kotkaniemi. The Hurricanes had to overpay the player to make it work and they were perfectly comfortable doing so knowing they were putting the screws to the Canadiens and that if he didn’t perform to even marginal expectations, it wouldn’t change their standing as a Stanley Cup contender this year.

Both Waddell and Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon, who was so slighted by Montreal’s low-ball offer to Aho and the $21-million signing bonus it came with as an implication he was too frugal to pay up, should be smiling ear to ear as their 2-0 team tries to deepen the hole of the 0-4 Canadiens. They’ll probably be doing cartwheels if Kotkaniemi and Aho combine to do the damage — even if they don’t want to admit it.

For Kotkaniemi, it won’t be about vengeance.

He said he holds no grudge towards the Canadiens, or towards Bergevin for dragging negotiations and not ultimately matching the offer, and he added, “I’m really grateful that they drafted me and gave me a chance.

“It was a great spot to play for three years. Everyone knows they’ve got unbelievable fans, (I had) great teammates and couldn’t wish for any better way to start my NHL career. I always thought it was great.”

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