Canadiens’ Bergevin must explore all options before matching Kotkaniemi offer: Engels

By Eric Engels, Sportsnet

MONTREAL — We figure this was two years, 58 days and 22 hours in the making, and Tom Dundon’s currently kicking his heels up at Hurricanes headquarters and laughing his you-know-what off about it.

This dish—a one-year, $6.1-million offer sheet tendered to 21-year-old Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi—was served ice-cold on Saturday, with the heatwave in Montreal finally giving way hours earlier. In balmy Raleigh, N.C., the owner of the Hurricanes must’ve been cackling at the thought of Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin having to swallow every morsel of it.

It was on July 1, 2019 that Dundon was informed Bergevin had signed his future franchise player, Sebastian Aho, to a five-year, $42.27-million contract that would award Aho a $21-million bonus within the first calendar year of the new deal, and it was probably right then and there he decided he’d seek vengeance for it. There was nothing implicit or subtle about what Bergevin had done, making it immediately clear the Canadiens had calculated Dundon wasn’t willing to shell out all that cash right away given his reputation (honed over his first year-and-a-half operating the franchise) for being quite… frugal.

Bergevin said it was just business, but it was clearly personal to Dundon, who, at the time, was estimated to be worth north of a billion dollars.

Dundon had seven days to match the Aho offer sheet—he used them and finally did—and he’s had every minute since to contemplate putting Bergevin in a similar vice.

Now that he’s done it, he also made sure to rub salt in the wound in the form of a $20 bonus (Aho’s jersey number) to Kotkaniemi and a statement from Hurricanes GM Don Waddell that mirrors the exact one Bergevin put out after signing Aho.

“Jesperi Kotkaniemi accepted our offer. He wants to come to Carolina,” said Waddell. “He sees the core we’ve built here and he wants to be a part of that. We’re proud, but there’s still a waiting period. When you make an offer like that, we saw a vulnerable position. The offer, with the compensation and the core we have, we realized that it was the best chance we had to get the player.”

Bergevin will have to park all of that and get to the business at hand, and we can’t say with any degree of certainty what he’ll do. This decision is a lot more complicated than the one Dundon and Waddell had to make on Aho.

The Canadiens picked Kotkaniemi third overall in 2018, they graduated him to the NHL months later and have invested their resources in having him develop into the player they expected him to be. They’ve dressed him for over 170 games and 29 more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and parting with him now for what’s likely to be a late first- and third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft—right as he’s in a position to better realize his potential—can’t be all that appetizing.

Deciding not to match Carolina’s offer and allowing Kotkaniemi to walk for that compensation, after Phillip Danault left for the Los Angeles Kings last month and thinned out the Canadiens at centre, would also be devastating to the Canadiens’ ability to build on their run to the 2021 Cup Final and make the 2022 playoffs.

But that still doesn’t make this an easy call.

Putting aside the immediate cap implications of paying Kotkaniemi $6.1 million—we checked with the Canadiens and they told us signing him would put them right up against the 10 per-cent threshold they can exceed the $81.5 million upper limit by during the off-season (despite public cap websites reporting they’d actually be close to $200,000 over), and they also said they could designate one of Shea Weber or Paul Byron to the long-term injured reserve list if need be—he hasn’t come close yet to earning that payday. The Finn had just five goals and 20 points in 56 games this past season after an up-and-mostly-down sophomore year that finished in the AHL, and he bookended these past playoffs as a healthy scratch.

When Bergevin was asked afterwards about placing his faith in Kotkaniemi to perform as the team’s second-line centre this upcoming season, he essentially said he’d reluctantly do it if he absolutely had to.

“I think KK is going to get this opportunity now,” Bergevin added after acknowledging that the opportunity to insulate Kotkaniemi better likely wasn’t available to him.

“I think there’s been times where you look at his play, he’s able to dominate and carry us for a couple of weeks, and there’s been times where maybe you haven’t noticed him for a couple of weeks,” Bergevin said. “Every young player is going to have those ups and downs, and there’s inconsistency.”

The GM knows that’s still likely to be the case with Kotkaniemi, who just turned 21 last month, and that makes matching this offer a difficult choice.

Doing so would also force the Canadiens to qualify Kotkaniemi at $6.1 million next off-season, regardless of how he performs from October to April, and that’s going to have an impact on every other bit of business Bergevin has to get done (here’s looking at Nick Suzuki, Montreal’s clear-cut No. 1 centre who’s up for a new contract in 2022).

It’s still the road Bergevin may very well be willing to go down, but not before exploring every other option available to him. And that’s what the next seven days are going to have him doing.

With a first- and a third-round pick from Carolina giving the Canadiens 12 picks in the 2022 Draft, could Bergevin look to shed some of that capital to acquire Arizona Coyotes centre Christian Dvorak? It’s a deal he’d be wise to explore, with the Coyotes proving over the last month that they’re on a quest to collect as many high-end picks as possible and with Dvorak giving the Canadiens at least as much reliability down the middle as Kotkaniemi would’ve provided this coming season.

That Dvorak’s a 25-year-old, six-foot, 200-pound, two-way centre who’s produced half a point per game over his 300-plus in this league makes him a good fit. Having him for four more seasons at a very digestible $4.45-million cap hit is appealing, too.

If not Dvorak, could the acquisition of those two picks from Carolina make the Canadiens stronger suitors in the Jack Eichel sweepstakes? Losing Kotkaniemi—a young, promising centre—certainly weakens their hand, but it doesn’t crush it. If they’re willing to move the picks and some high-end prospects, and live with the risk of Eichel becoming the first NHL player to have an artificial disc-replacement procedure before dressing for a game in their uniform, it’s an avenue Bergevin could go down.

And then there’s going nuclear and tendering an offer sheet to Vancouver Canucks centre Elias Pettersson. We don’t think Bergevin’s going to do that—how he’d make it work from a cap perspective is beyond our limited math comprehension—but we can’t strike it as a possibility.

We’d imagine Bergevin will come up with a few more than we’re putting forth in this space.

Everything’s on the table, including Dundon’s shoes. No doubt, he’ll enjoy both the process and the outcome either way.

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