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What are the contract options for Jesperi Kotkaniemi?

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The Canadiens got their man at the entry draft. Now what do they do with him?

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

With their third overall selection at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft the Montreal Canadiens selected Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a centre from Finland who went vaulting up the prospect rankings very late in the season.

One of the reasons for his ascent was his performance at the Under-18 World Championship, where he was a point-per-game player with Finland. His results playing on wing in the top Finnish league also gave rise to a lot of optimism regarding his potential.

So now Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has his marquee centreman, and along with Ryan Poehling drafted last season, he has quickly addressed a hole in his prospect pipeline down the middle.

So what are the options with Kotkaniemi going forward?

For starters, according to the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Canadiens have four years to sign an 18-year-old player drafted out of Europe, meaning June 1, 2022 is the deadline to get him under contract before his rights expire. Certainly that won’t become an issue, as there is very little chance that the Canadiens will wait that long to get him under contract.

As was reported on Saturday by several outlets, Kotkaniemi still has two years on his contract with his Liiga club, Ässät. So questions arose about whether he would be forced to honour that agreement prior to signing with the Canadiens.

As part of the working agreement between the NHL and most European leagues, a first-round pick can be bought out of his existing European contract. So should the Canadiens wish to get him under contract, there is not much of an obstacle in place.

What will his entry-level contract look like?

An entry-level contract for Kotkaniemi will have a maximum NHL base compensation of $925,000 for three years. The negotiation portion will come down to signing bonuses and performance bonuses.

The signing bonus cannot exceed 10% of the base salary, therefore a maximum of $92,500.

Performance bonus is where the negotiations are the heaviest, with two groups: “A” and “B.”

The performance “A” bonus is limited to the following categories:

  1. Games played: no minimum target
  2. Aggregate ice time: must be top six forward on the club in ice time (minimum 42 games played)
  3. Goals: 20 goal minumum
  4. Assists: 35 assist minumum
  5. Points: 60 points minimum
  6. Points per game: 0.73 points per game minimum (minimum 42 games played)
  7. Plus-Minus rating: Among top three forwards on team (minimum 42 games played)
  8. End of season NHL All-Rookie Team
  9. NHL All-Star Game
  10. NHL All-Star Game MVP

No one category can exceed $212,500 per season, and the total performance bonus cannot exceed $850,000.

The Performance “B” Bonuses include league trophies and awards at the end of the season, and are paid out by the league, and additional bonuses can also be negotiated individually with the team up to $2,000,000.

With an ELC in place, more options open themselves up for the Canadiens.

As Kotkaniemi was not drafted by any junior team in their import draft, no team can claim his junior rights in Canada. The import draft happens this upcoming week, so we will see who gets Kotkaniemi’s junior rights. The Val-d’Or Foreurs are the first QMJHL team to pick, at seventh overall, if the Canadiens want to keep Kotkaniemi close by.

But ultimately, as an 18-year-old, Kotkaniemi can play with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket, being drafted by an NHL club before a CHL club. In addition, a valid European contract supersedes CHL rights by some accounts, so the odds of seeing Kotkaniemi in the Canadian junior system are slim.

Signing a three-year entry-level agreement for 2018-19 does not automatically mean that the clock starts on the first year of his contract. Being 18 on September 15, 2018, he is eligible to have his contract slide by a year if he doesn’t play 10 NHL games this upcoming season. So the Canadiens, if they really wanted to, can take a look at Kotkaniemi at the NHL level as early as this season.

The other option is to follow the William Nylander model of 2014-15. Nylander split his season between the AHL Toronto Marlies and the SHL’s Modo, gaining valuable experience both on North American ice and top-line minutes in Sweden, without burning a year off of his three-year contract. Kotkaniemi could spend some time with Joël Bouchard and the Laval Rocket to get some smaller ice experience. Bouchard certainly is no stranger to developing 18-year-olds, and would be a good mentor for Kotkaniemi. He can return to Finland at some point as well, or be loaned to his original club.

Starting the season in Laval would also allow Kotkaniemi to participate in the Canadiens’ training camp, otherwise the European season is already under way and his Ässät responsibilities would take precedence. He could return to Europe in time for his national team’s preparation for the World Junior Championship, and remain in Europe for the rest of the season, potentially returning to Laval for the AHL playoffs once his Liiga season is over.

The Canadiens could also just wait a year to sign him at all, and let him play in Finland under the tutelage of his father, developing and maturing in a familiar environment. The risk of bringing a young player over from Europe at a young age is that cultural adaptation is not always successful. Look at previous cases of Alexander Avtsin and Alexander Buturlin as two examples of prospects who did not adapt well to the move, and subsequently did not become NHL players.

The Canadiens will have a choice to make as to how they proceed with Kotkaniemi’s development, hopefully taking their time and not rushing their new marquee player to the intense spotlight and scrutiny he will face when he arrives.