The easy reaction when the Montreal Canadiens announced they would not match the Carolina Hurricanes’ offer sheet for Jesperi Kotkaniemi would be that the Canadiens failed to develop another high draft pick.
In reality, it’s a little more nuanced than that. One thing that comes up again when going through the relationship between Kotkaniemi and the Canadiens organization is timing, and impatience.
It’s a bit ironic that it worked out this way, because Bergevin was pretty measured when it came to Kotkaniemi’s immediate future at the 2018 Draft when he selected the centre.
“He’s coming to Montreal next week for our Development Camp. We’ll look at him closely and we’ll go from there,” said Bergevin after the 2018 Draft. “We’ll do what’s best for him in the long run, but we also have to look at the big picture and his future.”
At the team’s development camp, Kotkaniemi showed enough to earn his entry-level contract after the final on-ice session. That earned him an invitation to the team’s rookie and training camp before a decision would be made on his future at that time.
By now, you know what happened. Max Domi got suspended in the pre-season, providing an opening for Kotkaniemi to grab a hold of a roster spot and earn his opening night place on the roster.
This is where the impatience starts to come in. You can argue about whether it was the right or wrong decision, and the circumstances that made Kotkaniemi one of the team’s top centres through that camp. It’s similar to what happened with Victor Mete and the lack of other options on defence the previous year at camp. In fact, in that same press conference after the 2018 Draft, Bergevin used Mete as an example as a player who could play his way onto the roster.
“It’s easy to re-do things three, four years later,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin on Monday. “He had a very good training camp, a very good first half of the season, it was in the second half where he started to struggle. At the time I remember thinking maybe it’s his age, maybe it’s the 82 game schedule... and today, I look back and maybe it was the better decision to send him back to Finland.”
When you pick in the top three, you would be more inclined to try to keep the player on the opening night roster. You just went through a tough season, and it’s a lot easier to point to the prize from going through that bad season. The fact that Kotkaniemi performed well early on was even more incentive to do that.
There was a next phase to the impatience from the Canadiens perspective. After Kotkaniemi’s struggles in the second half of his rookie season, expectations were high that he would bounce back in his second year. An injury he tried to play through saw Kotkaniemi struggle, and he finished the pandemic-shortened regular season in the American Hockey League with the Laval Rocket. Kotkaniemi played well in Laval, and when the Canadiens made the post-season, he raised his game to a level we hadn’t seen from him.
Once again, expectations were high for his third season, but Kotkaniemi was inconsistent. He couldn’t be at the level he needed to be at for the entire season. The result was that he was scratched three times in the team’s playoff run.
“Sometimes it takes longer, or their view of what’s happening is different than the reality,” Bergevin said. “Sometimes a young player feels like ‘I shouldn’t be going through this because I’ve been here before’... Well, we have to win hockey games. That’s the job that coaches have.”
Quite frankly, the team could not afford to be patient enough to play through his growing pains. Some might say that it was the result of a failed development path, but reading between Marc Bergevin’s words, it was more a mismatch of the role Kotkaniemi was going to have to play, and the ability he had at this point in his career.
“There are things that I saw in the last two years that I don’t think that would have changed [with a different path in his first season]... It’s more than just going back to Finland,” Bergevin said.
At this point, we looked at the decision making process from the Canadiens’ point of view. But even accepting Carolina’s offer in the first place showed a bit of impatience from Kotkaniemi’s point of view. He wanted to secure his financial future in a way a bridge deal just wouldn’t do. And if he wasn’t understanding the reasons he wasn’t in the lineup — as Bergevin might have alluded to as well — you can understand why he may not have felt he would have had the opportunity to prove his worth during that contract.
The decision to accept the offer sheet — and the offer’s structure itself — then forced Bergevin’s hand.
“He put us in a situation where we had to make a decision on what was best for our team now and moving forward,” Bergevin said. “With the offer sheet, for me it was excessive at $6.1 million for one year for the stage he’s at in his career. We made a decision based on that, but also based on the future of the Canadiens, and the future of our salary cap that we need to manage. We have some good players who are pushing, so we need to be careful, we need to do good things as a manager, so the decision was made.”
So the story between Kotkaniemi and the Canadiens ends here. It’s clear that there’s still promise in Kotkaniemi, otherwise Carolina wouldn’t want to pay him the amount that they are paying him. It still provides Bergevin with an ability to learn from it. The results from Nick Suzuki’s return to junior — the same year that Kotkaniemi made his NHL debut — may have solidified Bergevin’s learning when he later took a more patient approach with Cole Caufield.
“It is a lesson, I can say that. I’m not perfect,” Bergevin said. “Sometimes we don’t make the right decision but we do it for the right reasons. ... It is something that we’ll watch closely moving forward.”
The Canadiens didn’t necessarily want to lose Kotkaniemi, but they weren’t sure if he was the ideal centre behind Suzuki at this time. They wanted him signed at an amount that was reflective of the player he is to give them the flexibility to improve their current roster.
The bridge contract, like the offer sheet, is a tool in the collective bargaining agreement so teams can use all of their up to seven years to decide what to do with their young players.
Kotkaniemi has yet to show what he could be. The Canadiens simply decided they didn’t want to pay the inflated amount of the offer sheet to find out.