By now, all major sports outlets have either had an inside scoop, an “I told you so”, a prediction, an opinion, or possibly all those things and more while either leaning on their most veteran analysts or grabbing reactions from Twitter about the Carolina Hurricanes 6.1 million dollar offer sheet to the Montreal Canadiens Centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, laden with examples of childish pokes at the Canadiens. I had purposefully waited for the passing of the collective gut-reaction and emotional explosion from media and fans alike as I observed all too common behaviour of taking sides, blame, outrage, revenge, and of course somehow Leafs nation making this about how their player contract and performance woes over the past seven days--sigh. There are a lot of dimensions to the Kotkaniemi saga and that’s exactly what it is as it has unfolded, ultimately resulting in the Canadiens not matching the Carolina offer sheet. This has been playing out for some time now both for Kotkaniemi and the Carolina Hurricanes front office, both of whom have been seemingly sucking on a pacifier while they indulged in their own versions of tantrums and truths, while the NHL has yet again failed to protect its image and business by hiding behind rules and policies that should come back to haunt them at the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Let’s start with the kid and yes, at 21 years of age, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is still a kid who learned almost nothing from the benefit of having mentors like Shea Weber, Carey Price, and Brendan Gallagher, or the history of what it means to be a Montreal Canadien. If you don’t believe that, rewind the tape from Game 2 of the Canadiens vs Leafs in the 2021 NHL playoffs where after scoring the only HABS goal in a 5-1 loss, he takes off his glove and holds up four fingers while looking up to the stands. He was saluting teammates Romanov, Frolik, and Caufield who were all scratches to start the playoffs, including himself (four). That was the moment that I said to myself, “He’s not going to be a Montreal Canadien for long.” That gesture was as much for his coaches and owner as it was to pay some sort of homage to the other three players of whom we’re to believe he formed some sort of bond with from being wronged by sitting out the start of the playoffs. Arguably, he embarrassed his coaches and owner, and any General Manager with a pulse wrote down his name after that moment, knowing he was a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) and there was a rift between him and the team front office. We now know, the Carolina Hurricanes were one of those teams who made those notes. We also know that the Montreal Canadiens are a proud and historic organization that has for the better part of its existence maintained a high standard and image with a beacon of that being the late Jean Beliveau, while in recent years the torch had been passed to guys like Shea Weber or Carey Price. When Kotkaniemi held up those four fingers, he may as well have folded three of them down because he wasn’t honouring his three teammates in the stand as much as he was dishonouring the legacy of the team, its leaders, every player on the bench, and even the fans. He may have played a few more playoff games, but that was really when he left the Montreal Canadiens, long before he signed an offer sheet.
Can Kotkaniemi be blamed for signing a $6.1 million dollar offer sheet? Of course not and I’d be pressed to find any 21-year-old who would turn it down. Was it the right choice? It depends on who you ask. For Kotkaniemi, he achieved two things: 1. He netted a whole lot of money in the short term. 2. He gets to stick it to the team that benched him to start and end the playoffs. For the Carolina Hurricanes, they get to exercise some revenge on the Montreal Canadiens for their offer sheet to Sebastian Aho a few years back, albeit at a very costly and risky $6.1 million dollars, with a childish grin, that has the potential to handcuff both teams this and next season, depending on a variety of scenarios.
What sticks out in this offer sheet by comparison to the one made to Aho, was that the Montreal Canadiens made what one might call a legitimate hockey offer in a five year, $42.27 million deal that was structured with a lot of bonus money to give the team cap flexibility and a possible gamble that Carolina Owner, Thomas Dundon wouldn’t be able to spend the extra money to match it. I say legitimate because the deal had both term and was going to address a real need for the Canadiens. By comparison, the Hurricanes offer sheet to Kotkaniemi is a 1-year deal with classless nuances like highlighting the deal by ending it in $15 (Kotkaniemi’s jersey number, for a visual total of $6,100,015), a signing bonus of $20 (Sebastian Aho’s number), making their offer sheet announcement in French and English, and copying Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin’s rational for Aho, almost verbatim. In terms of need, arguably the Hurricanes don’t need a 3rd line centre at $6.1 million dollars who has mustered 22 goals in 171 games, averaged .36 points per game and sits at a -11 +/- over that stretch, who may get slotted into an unnatural wing position. Either way, it will be interesting to watch Kotkaniemi try to earn his pay, which if he doesn’t could impact his future earnings and NHL career.
While offer sheets are part of the NHL rules, there is no code of conduct that oversees behavioural nuances that might become part of their execution like this one. While it takes two to make it happen, what also can’t be ignored is the role of the NHL in this. As far as the deal itself, while the Carolina Hurricanes stuck it to the Montreal Canadiens with all the petty gestures, so did Jasperi Kotkaniemi as he transitioned his four fingers to one, and then six, without any life-lesson candour advice from his agent Markus Lehto. Accepting the offer sheet isn’t an issue, but if Kotkaniemi and agent Lehto had any respect for the game, the organization, or the business, they would have gotten those little jabs taken out. The same goes with the NHL, who wants to be taken as a serious and legitimate sport, but then adds this stain to its already blemished and growing issues (see articles on $18M over the cap, drunken Kucherov, and ongoing questionable officiating). The NHL isn’t just failing its fans, it is also failing its players and sponsors, while exposing itself in the next CBA. Surely, the NHLPA is watching how cap circumvention and lofty offer sheet cash is being thrown around while owners always claim holes in their pockets.
When you take the emotions and shenanigans out of the equation in this saga, you’re left with a player who was selected 3rd overall by the Montreal Canadiens because of positional need, not necessarily because he was really the 3rd best available player in that draft year. In fact, Kotkaniemi was projected anywhere between 12th and up to 20th on varying draft lists. Statistically he hasn’t lived up to what most perceive a 3rd overall pick should be and while arguably he is only 21 years old, if you can’t use his hockey stats to measure his value, his situational maturity doesn’t help him either.
Given said maturity, it is clear that Jesperi Kotkaniemi doesn’t want to be a Montreal Canadien and I couldn’t see how he could be given his behaviour before and through the offer sheet. The 18-year-old smiling kid who was once a beacon of hope for the Canadiens centre woes is smiling bigger than ever, now, but not because he’s trying to carry a historic torch that we know was too heavy for him, but because he’s got a pocket full of (short-term) cash and a feeling that he got the upper hand on his former employer, albeit by participating in childish behaviour with an owner in Dundon who could just be using him for his own entertainment. If that’s the type of player he has become, then perhaps he was never going to fit into an organization who has corner stones like Jean Beliveau, The Rocket Richard, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey, Shea Weber, and so many more as examples for resiliency, accountability, and leadership.
Throughout this seven-day saga, the Montreal Canadiens have done all the right things by not responding with petty quotes through social media, remaining focused, respecting the process, the players, and the fans, and ultimately not behaving like a “bunch of jerks”.
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