The Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens are embroiled in a glorious beef two years in the making, steeped in unwritten rules, pettiness, and bad feelings. It’s unquestionably the best NHL story of the offseason so far, so let’s dive into what the heck is going on.
Saturday the Hurricanes announced the team has signed Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a third line forward of the Canadiens to an offer sheet. On the surface this seems like a minor thing, right? Teams sign restricted free agents to contracts all the time, it’s just part of business. Well, not in the NHL. The offer sheet system is essentially a sham, a wink and a nod — technically legal, but rarely ever used. General managers around the NHL are reluctant to sign players to offer sheets in an unwritten gentleman’s agreement to keep league-wide cap solvency.
So entrenched is this unwritten rule that in the last 16 years only seven players have been signed to offer sheets, with only one player changing teams as a result of an offer sheet — Dustin Penner, who signed a sheet prior to the 2007-08 season. So, in signing Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet the Hurricanes thumbed their nose at a league-wide silent agreement, but why?
This beef has been simmering for two years
The Hurricanes’ act of signing Kotkaniemi is pure, unfiltered revenge for 2019, when the Canadiens spitefully offered a huge front-loaded offer sheet to Sebastian Aho, one of Carolina’s emerging stars. There was never any doubt the Canes would match the sheet for Aho, so critical was he viewed as a future cornerstone of the franchise, but Montreal’s sheet was tantamount to a poison pill.
Montreal was in definite need of a first line center, and Aho was unquestionably one of the young centers in the league — but this wasn’t simply a case of trying to get the player, the Canadiens wanted to break the Hurricanes. The hugely front-loaded contract was designed to put financial pressure on Carolina, putting the team in a position where they might not be willing to shell out immediate big money to keep a star player in a small hockey market.
How you feel about this is a matter of perspective, likely based purely on where your hockey allegiances lie. To some the Canadiens simply made a smart hockey move, even if it backfired. To others this was the purest example of a big market team using its financial clout to try and pressure and hurt a small market.
Of course, Montreal would never admit this, but there is no doubt that front-loading the deal was designed to hurt the Hurricanes. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, the Canes had a long memory.
Why the Kotkaniemi offer sheet is a big deal
For two years the Hurricanes simmered. Hoping, waiting for a moment to strike. With Montreal coming off a stunningly successful season, leading to the team’s first Stanley Cup Finals berth since 1993, the future was bright for the Canadiens. The team had little over $1M in salary cap space, but this was fine. The roster was set, Montreal had a year to evaluate potential free agents, and presumably use their free cash on Nick Suzuki, a 22-year-old emerging star seen as a future foundation of the Canadiens.
Then Carolina pulled the trigger. The team signed Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet, accelerating how quickly Montreal needs to make a decision on the 21-year-old. Kotkaniemi may not have lived up to his billing as the 3rd overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, but he was accelerated into the NHL and many believed was forced to play before he was ready. This meant that Kotkaniemi was really still an unknown quantity, with some believing he never really had it, others thinking he had future star potential. Still, it puts all the pressure on Montreal.
Carolina’s offer sheet to Kotkaniemi is for 1 year, $6.1M — but the devil is in the details. Should the Canadiens match the sheet and Kotkaniemi becomes a good player, they’ll be facing down the prospect of a massive qualifying offer based off that $6.1M salary that will unquestionably force them to choose between Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, neither of whom the team will want to lose.
As far as Carolina goes, they’re taking a risk too. Should Montreal let Kotkaniemi go they will need to send a 1st and 3rd round pick to the Canadiens as compensation. NHL offer sheets require compensation like this, unlike the NBA counterparts.
So now, what would have been a relatively quiet August for Montreal is fraught with drama, at least for the next week. The Canadiens have one week to decide if they’ll match the sheet, or let Kotkaniemi leave.
The Hurricanes didn’t just make an offer, they made it petty as hell
Carolina are gleeful in their desire to be hockey’s iconoclasts. From their team celebrations, to aggressively youthful social media team — the Canes have garnered interest from young fans all around hockey, purely for how they thumb their noses at the establishment.
It started with the announcement of the offer sheet, tweeted with a simple “LOL.” Then, to drive the point home more, the Canes wrote the announcement in French just so Canadiens fans could read it as easily as possible.
Les Hurricanes ont annoncé aujourd’hui avoir déposé une offre hostile au joueur autonome avec restriction Jesperi Kotkaniemi des Canadiens de la Montreal. L’entente proposée est d’une durée de un ans et d’une valeur annuelle moyenne de 6,1 millions $.
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) August 28, 2021
News broke that not only did the Canes ink Kotkaniemi to a $6.1M sheet, but it includes a $20 signing bonus. Yes, twenty dollars. Why? Just so happens Sebastian Aho wears No. 20. There was absolutely no mistaking the revenge move, especially when GM Don Waddell essentially copy/pasted the announcement, borrowing from Montreal.
Turnabout is fair play, but not to the Montreal establishment, who are FURIOUS the Hurricanes had the audacity to get them back for trying to steal their best player in 2019. Carolina is loving every single second of it.
Is what Carolina did petty as hell? Absolutely. Is it the funniest thing to happen in hockey in the last year? Hell yeah it is. This is the NHL’s financial David sticking it to Goliath in the most perfect way. While there are some decent hockey reasons for signing a young player like Jesperi Kotkaniemi for a team in need of depth, it really pales in comparison to the hilarity of making the Canadiens squirm by getting a taste of their own medicine.
Now the wait is on to see if Montreal matches the offer sheet, and it will be fascinating to watch, no matter what happens next.