The Montreal Canadiens ended the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer-sheet drama by letting him go to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Habs immediately (yet conditionally) flipped some of their draft capital acquired as compensation, namely the first-round pick, and a second-round selection in 2024 to the Arizona Coyotes for Christian Dvorak. The caveat to the picks going to Arizona is slightly complicated, in that the Coyotes will get the higher of the first-round picks, unless one or both ends up in the top 10 after the draft lottery, in which case they receive the lower one.
This transaction does sting the Canadiens as they now cannot use a first-round pick as a trade asset until the season is over which limits their trade possibilities for the immediate future. Given Marc Bergevin’s track record, he hasn’t been one for trading a first round pick until it becomes a player — until this trade for Dvorak.
In Christian Dvorak, Montreal is getting an established NHL centre with term (four more years) and a reasonable cap hit ($4.45 million per year, no bonuses). With the loss of Phillip Danault in free agency, finding a top-six centre was a crucial task for Marc Bergevin. Given the asking price for Jack Eichel, and the free-agent market drying up extremely quickly, a trade was the only way that was going to happen.
Before delving fully into what Dvorak brings, we should take a look at how he stacks up against the player he was essentially traded for on Saturday, and the one he’s ultimately replacing in the lineup.
Across a three-year sample starting in 2018-19, Dvorak outpaced Kotkaniemi in most categories, save for even-strength defence. However, the big thing to note is that Dvorak is a few years older than the player who was on an entry-level deal, and therefore trusted more by his coaches in Arizona, while Kotkaniemi never really earned that same leash in Montreal. Kotkaniemi had a strong rookie year, but failed to do much in the regular season the next two, before showing up in the playoffs. Dvorak comes in with an established baseline, which allows Montreal to easily plan where he can slot into the lineup, whereas Kotkaniemi was a bit of a wild card from night to night.
It’s easy to say that they’re giving up and that the team didn’t develop the young Finn properly, and that can be true. It can also be true that with their current core and roster situation, that opting for a stable option down the middle who can slot into any role was the right call. Losing a player you took a risk on at third overall stings, especially for a club that has struggled to produce top-end NHL talent with its picks, but the team also isn’t in a position to gamble $6.1 million in cap space on this season — and possibly next — with the hope it all works out in their favour.
Dvorak isn’t going to be the flashiest of players, but he had plenty of experience playing big minutes for the Coyotes, mainly as a guy taking a hefty dose of their defensive zone starts. At his peak, he thrived with a pair of volume-shooting wingers in Taylor Hall and Conor Garland. For Habs fans, that should make a lot of people very happy as Brendan Gallagher fits that role perfectly. Dvorak isn’t going to produce the same shutdown, defensive results as Danault, but offensively he should be a step up, and fairly seamlessly integrate with Gallagher in a top-six role. If the plan is to use him in those big minutes and defensive zone starts, the Habs will have to shuffle through their other wingers to find a fit, and Artturi Lehkonen might find a spot on that line as well.
Last season showed that Dvorak has made himself into a strong power-play option, something Danault struggled to do despite plenty of minutes, and that gives Montreal a true secondary centre threat on the man advantage.
His ability to find a home in the slot and in front of the net, and cashing in with regularity, should help to bring a new wrinkle to a Canadiens power play that has severely underachieved for the past two-and-a-half years. We know that Dvorak does produce better with shot-generating wingers, and with it being the power play he should see time with Mike Hoffman and Cole Caufield as well. It’s not a guaranteed cure-all, but it’s adding a piece that should push the Habs in the direction they need to go to.
Dvorak helps fill an immediate void in the Canadiens’ lineup, slotting in as the other top-six centre with Nick Suzuki. His offensive numbers aren’t mindblowing, but he should find it pretty easy to meld into the lineup with the full plate of options on the wing, and have a good shot at rediscovering his game from two years ago.
Perhaps unfairly, his entire tenure in Montreal will be judged against Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s in Carolina due to the circumstances surrounding his trade from Arizona, and Danault’s in Los Angeles at the same time. Dvorak should stabilize the top six while bringing some much-needed punch to the second wave on the power play, something Montreal wasn’t sure Kotkaniemi could do. All in all, Marc Bergevin found himself the piece he’s needed since the off-season began, and if Dvorak has the bounce-back season some people expect, then this trade can be seen a positive one.