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Canadiens would ‘have loved’ to keep Kotkaniemi, but not at offer-sheet price

Deciding to part ways, even when a situation’s circumstances make saying goodbye seem sensible, can be hard.

What-ifs abound. There’s never a guarantee the best choice will be made. The most honest judge, almost always, will be hindsight.

The Montreal Canadiens ended their summer faced with such a decision. After Jesperi Kotkaniemi signed a lucrative, one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Canadiens were on the clock — ultimately electing to let him walk instead of matching the offer.

“Would we have loved to have kept him? Of course,” Marc Bergevin, general manager of the Canadiens, said Monday. “But not at $6.1 million and not with Christian Dvorak available to us.”

Dvorak, though not officially part of the Kotkaniemi offer-sheet saga, was Montreal’s first move in its wake.

The Canadiens sent two draft picks to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for the young centre. Arizona will get the better of either Montreal’s or Carolina’s first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, which the Canadiens were given as compensation for the Hurricanes’ offer sheet, as well as Montreal’s second-round pick in the 2024 NHL Draft.

Montreal’s hope, Bergevin noted, was to have more time to make a decision on Kotkaniemi’s future, with the team having considered a bridge contract for him — which would have afforded the club a chance to track the 21-year-old’s progression more extensively before either party committed to a long-term arrangement.

“When you draft a kid at 17, 18 years old, there’s always a projection and that’s why the system in place gives you time to assess that,” Bergevin said. “In [Kotkaniemi’s] case, getting that offer sheet put us in a position where we had to make a decision earlier than we would have liked to — that’s why the bridge contract was where we were going to go with this young player at the time.”

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Instead, the young Finn will join a trio of his countrymen — Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Antti Raanta — in Carolina, looking to build on the progress he’s made in his first three big-league seasons, during which he put up 62 total points through 171 career games. Through 29 post-season appearances, he’s put up a combined nine goals and 12 points.

In his place, the Canadiens will turn to Dvorak to not just fill Kotkaniemi’s production, but whatever he could have grown into, too.

The 25-year-old is slated to make $4.45 million next season, a significant savings relative to Kotkaniemi’s $6.1-million deal.

“The amount of money on a one-year deal for a player who should be making a lot less, it could affect our future,” Bergevin said. “We have our structure, our salary cap that we have to work with and we have some young players coming through that we want to keep. So it put us in a situation where we had to make a decision on what was best for our team — now, and moving forward.”

The Canadiens chose Dvorak, a player who scored 17 goals and added 14 assists with Arizona throughout 56 games in 2020-21. He’s also established himself as a viable face-off man, winning between 51.4 per cent and 55.3 per cent of his draws in each of his last four NHL seasons.

“Being able to acquire DVO, Christian Dvorak, made our decision easier,” Bergevin said.

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