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Canadiens’ Bergevin may get last laugh after losing Kotkaniemi to offer sheet

MONTREAL— It was short and bittersweet, delivered 15 minutes shy of a full week that started with Jesperi Kotkaniemi signing a $6.1-million offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, and it was understated.

The Montreal Canadiens announced on Saturday they were walking away from the player they drafted third overall in 2018 and taking Carolina’s first- and third-round picks in the 2022 Draft for doing so, and general manager Marc Bergevin’s 18-word concession read, “Carolina has used a tool available to them in the collective bargaining agreement and we accept that decision.”

It was akin to a golf clap for a slam dunk, because the Hurricanes didn’t just “use a tool available to them” so much as they masterfully wielded it. They painted Bergevin into a corner and forced him to choose between overpaying Kotkaniemi and overpaying to replace him. They did it to avenge the offer sheet Bergevin tendered to Sebastian Aho in 2019, with Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon working a cheeky $20 signing bonus and tacking $15 onto Kotkaniemi’s salary as odes to Aho and Kotkaniemi’s respective jersey numbers before authorizing the team’s social media accounts to rub coarse salt in the wound, and they got what they wanted out of it.

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First off, the Hurricanes got the player. If they didn’t want Kotkaniemi, they wouldn’t have offered to pay him close to three times what he was likely to earn this coming season.

“Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a player who has been on our radar since before his draft year,” said Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell in a statement that followed Bergevin’s announcement the Canadiens weren’t matching the offer. “We believe he will flourish in Rod Brind’Amour’s system and culture, and he will be an important piece of what we are building in Carolina for years to come.”

But even if that proves untrue, the Hurricanes still forced Bergevin to give up on one of the players he said he hoped to build around for years to come—a player his team developed over 200 games (regular season and post-season combined)—and they pushed him to give up more than he’d have liked to in a corresponding trade with the Arizona Coyotes. There’s no debating that’s a win for them.

But it’s not a total loss for Bergevin and the Canadiens. In fact, it could prove to be a win.

Sure, the price was steep to acquire 25-year-old Christian Dvorak from the Coyotes, but it was worth it. In the 25-year-old, the Canadiens have gained a versatile player who’s accumulated nearly a half-a-point per game over his first 302 in the NHL and done so on a team lacking the type of talent on the wings the Canadiens currently boast. They’ve given up on the better of their two first-round picks (their own or Carolina’s) in the 2022 Draft and their own second-rounder in 2024 to do it, but they’re also getting a player who’s better than Kotkaniemi is right now.

Dvorak, who makes $4.45 million per season, has also already proven he’s worth what he’s being paid, and he’s got an opportunity to prove he’ll be more valuable than Kotkaniemi over the four seasons he remains under contract—especially if Kotkaniemi remains locked in at the $6.1 million he needs to be qualified at as a restricted free agent, but even so if he signs an extension at a lower average salary.

Dvorak’s a player we’ve been digging into since well before his acquisition was made by the Canadiens and well before we reported earlier this week that he was their primary target to replace Kotkaniemi. The impetus for that was when former teammate Max Domi (who was traded to the Canadiens for another former third-overall pick, Alex Galchenyuk) told us, shortly after arriving in Montreal in 2018, he felt Dvorak was among the most underrated players in the league.

Domi had played alongside Dvorak and watched him score 109 points with the OHL’s London Knights in 2014-15. He made the jump with the Coyotes while Dvorak stayed behind and put up 52 goals and 121 points in 59 games the following season, and then he revelled in the opportunity to once again play with Dvorak when he graduated to the NHL for the 2016-17 season.

What we’ve seen since Domi told us about him is a strong, two-way centre who’s effective in the slot on the power play and capable as a penalty killer.

Dvorak has also proven to be nearly as efficient scoring goals as he has been at setting them up—he’s got 67 goals and 79 assists since debuting—and he’s won between 51.4 per cent and 55.3 per cent of his faceoffs in each of his last four seasons.

An Eastern Conference executive told us this past Wednesday that he felt Dvorak was unquestionably a second-line centre on a good team and added, “If that guy’s centering your third line, you’re contending for a Stanley Cup.”

A Western-based scout sung the Illinois native’s praises when we touched base with him two hours after Saturday’s news broke.

“I know the player really, really well,” the scout started. “I’ve watched him play a ton over the years. The one thing about him that people probably don’t know is he’s a very competitive, quiet sort of leadership guy. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for that because he’s quiet, but he’s very competitive. He’s not going to play necessarily with tons of physicality, but he’s got a lot of jam, and he’ll go to the net and he’ll take a punch in front of the net if he has to.

“He’s also got really, really good hands. He doesn’t get enough credit for how good his hands are. And lastly, he’s an outstanding kid. I know you hear that about a lot of guys, but he’s a hockey player. He loves the game and he’s a very hard worker.”

We’re talking about the overall profile of a player Kotkaniemi might become, but not the one he’s been for the majority of his time in Montreal.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The Pori, Finland native accumulated just 22 goals and 62 points in 171 regular-season games with the Canadiens, with totals of five and 20 in 56 this past season, and he bookended their run from the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Final as a healthy scratch despite scoring five goals and eight points in 19 games.

When Bergevin was asked afterwards if he was prepared to commit to Kotkaniemi as his second-line centre for this coming season, he essentially said he only would as a last resort.

“As a player, we love KK’s potential, we love the peak of his game,” Bergevin said before attributing Kotkaniemi’s inconsistency to his youth and saying he’d ideally be able to better insulate him by acquiring another experienced centre.

But the GM also acknowledged he’d have a hard time doing that with the salary cap stagnating for years to come and Kotkaniemi and other young players on the Canadiens inevitably earning bigger paycheques. “I need to be careful,” he said.

The Hurricanes had no such restriction.

They’ve taken a massive gamble on Kotkaniemi’s potential, but one they’re comfortable with. They have the money to pay him, the depth to insulate him, and they have made him feel wanted and trusted and will give him a good opportunity to perform at his best.

If it doesn’t work and they end up signing and trading Kotkaniemi, or walking away from him after one season, they’ll have lost the money they’ve signed him for and the picks they surrendered to the Canadiens, and that won’t be a great look. But it won’t be a complete loss, either, after having successfully pulled one over on Bergevin and obtained the vengeance they were after.

As for the Montreal GM, he took his licks and moved on quickly and quietly after the Hurricanes yucked it up at his expense.

But Bergevin might be laughing hardest when all is said and done here.

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Written by Sportsnet

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