In an offseason that’s been full of risks, the Hurricanes took another one last week. Coming into the later stages of the summer, the Hurricanes had most of their roster set. They had their goalie tandem. Their D corps was locked in. What they still needed was another top-six/top-nine forward.
They chose to go an unconventional route to get one. A route, that, in fact, has now worked just twice in the NHL’s salary cap era. The Hurricanes executed a successful offer sheet for former Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and will now pay him $6.1 million for the 2021-22 season and send a first and third-round pick in the 2022 draft to Montreal.
It’s easy to see why the Hurricanes wanted to take a chance to add a 21-year-old forward who was drafted third overall just three years ago. He’s still got plenty of potential. But this is not a move that comes without risk.
There’s a reason Kotkaniemi was available. In three years, he’s posted just 22 goals and 62 points in 171 games. He put up just five goals last season.
Now, there’s plenty of reason to think he’ll be better for the Hurricanes. Montreal probably rushed him to the NHL and handled his development poorly. He mainly played center with the Canadiens, which is a much more difficult position to find your footing in the NHL than on the wing, where Don Waddell said the Hurricanes plan to play him. And he’ll likely get a chance to play with some combination of two of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teräväinen, Andrei Svechnikov, Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas, which would put him in a prime position to succeed.
The Hurricanes (probably wisely, given their track record) likely believe Rod Brind’Amour and his staff can get the best out of Kotkaniemi.
Still, they’re banking an awful lot that Kotkaniemi will perform better as a Hurricane than he has in his NHL career so far. $6.1 million and a first and third-round pick is nothing to sneeze at, and the Hurricanes are taking a risk here. But it’s a calculated risk, and one they were in a good spot to take.
There’s risk for any team with cup aspirations committing $6.1 million in cap space to a player like Kotkaniemi, but that’s the nature of the beast with an offer sheet. You have to overpay a player if you actually want to get them; otherwise their original team will just match it. And, though Waddell said the Hurricanes haven’t discussed an extension with Kotkaniemi yet, there’s a good chance a longer deal with a much more reasonable price will be on the table come January.
And, with the pending placement of Jake Gardiner on long-term IR, the Canes had plenty of cap space to make such a move.
The real risk comes in the picks. While draft picks are never guaranteed to succeed, a first and third are premium assets. However, even if this pans out in the worst way possible, it won’t be a devastating blow to the Hurricanes.
Let’s say the worst case scenario plays out with Kotkaniemi: He’s the second coming of the 2014-15 version of Alexander Semin, and the Hurricanes have no choice but to walk away at the end of the year. Then the team’s still out a first and third-round pick.
Well, if any team in the league can afford to lose draft picks right now, it’s probably the Hurricanes. The team just made 13 picks in the 2021 draft. They have their young core of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce locked in for at least three more seasons. Martin Necas will very likely join that group within the next calendar year. And the team has a consensus top-five prospect pool. Even if the worst case scenario occurs with Kotkaniemi, none of that changes.
And the best-case scenario is that Kotkaniemi emerges as a key contributor on the wing for what would then be a stacked Hurricanes top-six forward group for 2021-22, and someone they can mold into their number two center of the future.
Especially given where they are with their aforementioned prospect pool and young core, that potential upside is more than worth the risk the Hurricanes are taking by giving up those picks for Kotkaniemi.
Signing Jesperi Kotkaniemi was undoubtedly a big swing, but it was one the Hurricanes were well-positioned to take.