What would a Jesperi Kotkaniemi buyout look like?

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman joins the Jeff Marek Show to discuss Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell's resignation on Friday. Eric Tulsky has been named interim general manager.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s career to date can best be described as a “roller coaster.”

Back in 2018, the Montreal Canadiens drafted him third overall with the hopes that he’d evolve into a top-six centre for the NHL team, a position they lacked in high-end offensive talent and wanted to build around going forward.

Of course, going with Kotkaniemi in that draft slot meant the Canadiens passed up an opportunity to take winger Brady Tkachuk (fourth overall) or defenceman Quinn Hughes (seventh overall) and, well, you probably remember the famous fan reaction on the draft floor.

In Montreal, Kotkaniemi broke in with the team right away at 18 years old, and though he produced 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games that season, in hindsight it was too big a jump, too fast. His usage was all over the map and, in his second pro season after a run of cold play, Kotkaniemi was sent to the AHL.

The turning point for Kotkaniemi in Montreal really happened in the summer of 2019, when then-GM Marc Bergevin signed Carolina’s Sebastian Aho to a heavily front-loaded $42.27-million, five-year offer sheet — a surprising move in a league where those types of RFA signings are not commonplace. Though it was a lot of money up front, the Canes easily matched the contract, which wasn’t an out-of-line raise for a third-year player coming off an 83-point season.

Two years later, it was Kotkaniemi’s turn to become an RFA, and the Hurricanes promptly signed him to an offer sheet designed to put pressure on the Canadiens. It was a one-year deal worth an inflated $6.1 million against the cap — and a $20 signing bonus (not a typo) that matched Aho’s jersey number.

At that point, Kotkaniemi was coming off just a 20-point season in 56 games, so the Hurricanes were taking some risk, but bet on the player still breaking out. Near the end of that season, he was extended for a much more palatable $4.82 million AAV over a maximum eight-year deal.

But while Kotkaniemi had a career-best 18-goal, 43-point season a year ago, he crashed back to 12 goals and 27 points in 2023-24. In the playoffs, Kotkaniemi’s goals-for percentage (40) and expected goals-for percentage (40.74) at 5-on-5 was the worst of any regular Hurricanes player.

With the Hurricanes now hitting an off-season where they have several questions about the roster and a long to-do list, there may be some consideration to buy out the player. Carolina might focus on trying to re-sign Jake Guentzel, will have to prioritize re-signing Seth Jarvis, and then have four UFA defencemen to figure out or replace. Can they continue to afford Kotkaniemi at $4.82 million for another six years, even as the cap rises?

First, the key points to think about:

• Still just 23 years old, turning 24 on July 6, a Kotkaniemi buyout would cost Carolina only one-third of the cost instead of the usual two-thirds for players 26 or older.

• The Hurricanes would have Kotkaniemi’s dead-cap space on the books for 12 years if they bought him out this summer, but would save millions in cap space for the first half of that. And then in the final six years, the cap charge would be less than a million bucks. Here’s how the buyout would look:

What Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s buyout would look like, per CapFriendly.

• Despite that picture and relatively cheap buyout, there are still plenty of reasons it might be better to keep the player. First of all, since he is still so young and just a year removed from a notable step up in production, it’s quite possible he hasn’t achieved the best version of himself at the NHL level yet. The Canes could yet be walking away from a useful player.

• His age and position are also two reasons Kotkaniemi still could be a tradable asset to offload his contract. It’s unlikely the Hurricanes would get back the same package they had to give up to Montreal in return for signing an RFA (first- and third-round picks), but a rebuilding young team could reasonably see value in taking a shot at a young centre.

• It’s also notable that the Hurricanes don’t have to buy out Kotkaniemi this summer if they want to take advantage of the one-third buyout charge. Since the buyout window opens in either mid-June or 24 hours after the Stanley Cup is awarded, and runs to July 1, that means Kotkaniemi would still be eligible for the one-third buyout both next summer and in 2026. So, unless the Hurricanes really need that cap space freed up now, they could explore this option all over again for another two years if it’s really not working out, and then get penalized with dead-cap space for a shorter period of time (10 years if done in 2025, eight if done in 2026).

“I had one person bet me a steak dinner that Kotkaniemi does not get bought out,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said on The Jeff Marek Show last week. “That doesn’t mean he might not be involved in a deal or something like that, but they just don’t see a buyout.”

The Hurricanes have plenty to consider and are now doing it with a changeover in the front office after Don Waddell left and Eric Tulsky took over as interim GM. Since it’s an internal promotion, this won’t be a quick decision someone new has to make with fresh eyes. But, three years after signing Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, it’s no longer a guarantee that the young centre has a future in Carolina.

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