In the midst of a snoozy late-summer weekend, the NHL’s signing season just got hot.
On Saturday, the Carolina Hurricanes announced that they’ve signed Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet.
According to the Hurricanes’ press release, the offer is for one year, with a cap hit of $6,100,015 for the 2021-22 season — and a signing bonus of $20.
The Canadiens now have up to seven days to match the offer and retain their player. If they decide not to do so, they’ll receive two 2022 draft picks from Carolina as compensation — a first-rounder and a third-rounder.
Offer sheets rarely come into play in the NHL. They’re broadly seen by general managers as predatory tools that ultimately drive up player salaries across the board — an outcome that’s bad for business as a whole.
On the surface, the Hurricanes’ decision to go down this road — and especially that $20 signing bonus — seems personal.
The last time an offer sheet was tendered, it was against them. On July 1, 2019, Montreal signed Carolina’s young restricted free agent center Sebastian Aho to an offer sheet that covered five years, with a cap hit of just under $8.5 million per season and an actual salary of $12 million in the first year.
At that point, Tom Dundon had been the Hurricanes’ majority owner for just a year and a half, and there had been whispers that he might not have enough cash on hand to pay the $11.3 million in signing bonus money that would be due immediately if he matched.
Undeterred, Dundon quickly announced that he intended to match the offer, and did so six days later. Now 24, Aho has led the Hurricanes in scoring in both seasons since the deal was signed. With 123 points in 124 games, he’s tied for 13th overall in NHL scoring over those two years.
For Aho, the offer sheet was an opportunity to lock in a long-term deal, rather than facing an offseason of negotiation and uncertainty.
“It’s not up to you if somebody wants to offer sheet,” he said later that summer. “I had no idea. Obviously, I’m thankful for Montreal to offer me this contract — they showed me they wanted me — but at the same time I’m really psyched to play in Carolina.
Kotkaniemi may have more of an axe to grind in Montreal.
Drafted third overall out of Finland in 2018, the 18-year-old cracked the main roster in his first training camp and put up 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games during his rookie season. In the 2019-20 season, he was slowed by injuries and managed just eight points in 36 games before being assigned to the AHL Laval Rocket in early February. He was recalled for the 2020 summer playoff bubble, chipping in four goals in 10 games as the Canadiens upset the Pittsburgh Penguins before falling to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Kotkaniemi appeared in all 56 regular-season games for Montreal in the 2020-21 season, where he posted 20 points and saw his ice time increase by nearly two minutes per game. But he was scratched for the Canadiens’ first game of the playoffs before drawing into the lineup. And his overtime winner in Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs helped set the stage for an underdog run that took the team all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
When the Canadiens lost their first three games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was Kotkaniemi who came out of the lineup for the final two contests as coach Dominique Ducharme looked for a spark for his team. Ducharme made the move despite the fact that Kotkaniemi’s five goals had made him one of the Canadiens’ more reliable postseason scorers.
That may have left a bad taste in the mouth of Kotkaniemi and his team, but he was set to move up Montreal’s depth chart this season. Already tight to the salary-cap ceiling, the Canadiens lost key defensive center Phillip Danault to the Los Angeles Kings in free agency and aren’t expected to bring back trade-deadline acquisition Eric Staal. That leaves Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans and Cedric Paquette to man the pivot position if Kotkaniemi doesn’t return. Another first-round center prospect, 22-year-old Ryan Poehling, spent all of last season in the AHL.
That $6.1 million price point could make it very difficult for the Canadiens to bring Kotkaniemi back. According to CapFriendly, the team is currently sitting more than $2 million over the $81.5 million salary-cap ceiling, with just 21 players signed on their 23-player roster.
Captain Shea Weber, along with his $7.8 million cap hit, is expected to spend the full season on long-term injured reserve. That wiggle-room will provide some cap relief, but won’t be enough on its own.
And even though the offer sheet is for only one year, it will make Kotkaniemi a restricted free agent again at the end of next season. This time, he’ll have arbitration rights and a whopping qualifying-offer requirement of $6.1 million.
On their side, the Hurricanes gained cost certainty late last week when they signed their last restricted free agent, Andrei Svechnikov, to an eight-year contract with a cap hit of $7.75 million. Adding Kotkaniemi takes them to just over $83 million, according to CapFriendly, a number that can likely be whittled down fairly easily by running a roster of less than 23 players and/or using injured reserve as needed.
According to NHL Insider Pierre LeBrun, the Hurricanes did explore the possibility of a trade before using their poison pill.
Now, it’s up to Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin to decide whether his organization values Kotkaniemi enough to match. If it does, he’ll need to find a way to make that work under the salary cap.
The next seven days just got a lot more interesting.