Canes In A Self-Inflicted World Of Trouble

They were not happy, and I mean really not happy when, in the summer of 2019, the Montreal Canadiens signed Restricted Free Agent Sebastian Aho to a five-year offer-sheet worth over $42 million. The Hurricanes moaned and groaned for a week before finally matching the Canadiens offer, trying their best to minimize the trouble it had given them. You see, Montreal had information that owner Tom Dundon, while very well off, had his money tied up and they structured the contract in a way that most of the contract was going to be paid in signing bonus. The fact that the Canes don’t pay signing bonuses as a policy, Marc Bergevin, with the acceptance of Geoff Molson who pays the bills, structured the offer in a way that over $21 million of the contract would have to get paid within about a year’s time.

This irked the Canes so much that they have been planning their revenge ever since. It took two years but at first chance, they had their retribution all lined-up. As the Canadiens insisted on a bridge deal for young center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Canes snuck in and offered the young Finn $6.1 million on a one-year deal. Unlike Aho who was already a 30-goals scorer and averaged a point per game, Kotkaniemi’s best season was a mere 11 goals and 34 points in his rookie season. That offer not only surprised the Canadiens (not because they signed him, but because of the amount), it also shocked the hockey world. GMs around the league were NOT impressed as the Canes had just raised the bar for players coming out of their Entry Level Contracts (ELC). And they did it in a year where the salary cap was stagnant due to flat revenues because of the COVID pandemic.

Unlike the Hurricanes’ management and ownership, the Canadiens stayed mute about the offer-sheet. Not a single comment for an entire week and everyone was left wondering if they would match or not. It was even said that Dundon’s calls to Molson were not returned. Most were convinced that the Canes did this thinking that Montreal wouldn’t risk losing Kotkaniemi and would match. They just wanted to throw a wrench in the Canadiens’ plans and exerce revenge and that. No one believed them when claiming being happy when the Habs announced that they wouldn’t be matching the offer. No one believed them when they said it wasn’t revenge either… as it clearly was.

Great season but…

Thankfully for them, the Canes as a team are doing very well. At the time of writing this, they sit atop the Metropolitan Division and are amongst the top teams in the NHL. They are carried offensively by Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, Tony DeAngelo, Vincent Trochek and Teuvo Teravainen who all have over 0.80 points per game played. Only four Hurricanes have a negative plus/minus: Brendan Smith, Josh Leivo, Brett Pesce and… Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The former Canadiens’ third overall pick is not having a good season at all. His three points (2G-1A) in 15 games so far have him on a pace for a career low 16 points and he’s playing wing with Carolina, instead of his natural position at center. He averages 12:10 minutes of ice time per game, which is almost a minute less than what he had in his rookie season in Montreal. To think that on the Habs, prior to signing his offer-sheet, he was pencilled in as the team’s second line center with the departure of Phillip Danault. It goes to show that taking the quick money for a single season isn’t always the smartest thing to do.

Trouble brewing in Carolina

At the end of the season, Martin Necas is scheduled to become a UFA. Necas is already more productive than KK, getting 41 points in 53 games last year (0.77 Pts/GP) and he has nine points in 13 games so far (0.69 Pts/GP). As his own team has set the bar with Kotkaniemi at $6.1 million for much less production, we can expect to see either the Canes fork out a lot of money to sign him, or for tough negotiations at the very least… with the risk of a team (Montreal included) sneaking in with an offer-sheet.

While the Canes could let team captain Jordan Stall and Vincent Trochek (13 points in 15 GP this season) walk as Unrestricted Free Agents, they still need to re-sign Kotkaniemi. They also only have three of their current defensemen under contract for next season. And according to Capfriendly, the Canes already have over $57 million committed in salary to only 12 players next season, with the previously-mentioned players remaining to be signed.

So team GM Don Waddell will have his work cut out for himself. All that because of the ego of his owner and boss who wanted to seek revenge. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot… The team will be in trouble, Kotkaniemi isn’t happy. All of this could have been avoided had the young man thought about looking further than his own nose. He who laughs last, laughs best… and it doesn’t look like it will be KK and the Canes.

More reading…

Kotkaniemi To Be Booed To No End… As He Should!

Time For The President To Make a Statement

Jeff Petry Situation: The Talent Didn’t Go Away

Offer-Sheets Could Be The Last Straw For Bergevin

While legal in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, we don’t often see players signed to offer-sheets. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one, those players often have not reached their full potential and the salary given is often more based on potential and ensuring the other team doesn’t match than it is on players’ current worth. In a league with a hard salary cap, particularly in COVID years where the cap isn’t climbing fast, that’s an issue.

Paul Holmgren, while GM in Philadelphia, signed Shea Weber to a huge offer-sheet back in 2012, trying to pry him away from the Nashville Predators. The Preds matched the offer but Holmgren paid the price. He was quoted saying that he had to eventually step down from his position and let Ron Hextall take over the GM role because teams wouldn’t talk to him due to this offer-sheet.

When Marc Bergevin signed Sebastian Aho to an offer-sheet, many people were surprised. Bergevin downplayed it saying that it was legal through the CBA… and he was right. But now that the Carolina Hurricanes applied their revenge, they did so by ensuring that they were getting Jesperi Kotkaniemi… and they got him.

And we see the effect it has had on the franchise. Bergevin had worked hard to fix a decade gaping hole at centre and he had lost one of his best young prospects. Now, the Habs are playing Jake Evans, Adam Brooks or wingers as third line centers as a result. At the time of writing these lines, the Canadiens are, for the first time in their history, 32nd overall in the standings, with an 0-5-0 record.

Bergevin’s future

It has been a tumultuous off-season for the Canadiens since their appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. As positive as the previous off-season was, this past summer has been a disaster as much on the hockey front as it’s been politically speaking. It just wasn’t supposed to be like that. It seems like the Habs have been in damage control all summer long. As a matter of fact, they still are today.

In his latest media availability, Bergevin said that he would like to remain as the Canadiens’ GM “in a perfect world”… whatever that means. He’s not laughing anymore. He’s not making jokes. That’s NOT Marc Bergevin we’re seeing here. We’re seeing an emotional man, in tears, a guy who has aged beyond the nine years he’s been at the helm of the Habs. He doesn’t look like he’s having fun anymore.

Is it possible that with this latest offer-sheet fiasco, losing the 3rd overall pick for a first and third round compensation, was thee straw that broke the camel’s back for Geoff Molson? It’s hard to tell but Molson was behind Bergevin on the Aho offer-sheet as reports were that the intel came from him about Tom Dundon’s finances. Has he lost faith in his GM to deliver on his promisses? And has Bergevin shot himself in the foot by signing Aho to an offer-sheet? You live by the sword, you risk perishing by the sword.

Effects on the team

But how exactly is the contractual status of the General Manager supposed to have any effect on the performance of the team, some ask? How are players, who are paid to play hockey, could be distracted whether their GM is signed beyond this year or not? I mean, it’s not like he’s in the dressing room or on the ice with them, right?

Right, but… wrong. Marc Bergevin wears his heart on his sleeve. How many examples does one need to see that not only does he care about his players, but his players care about him. He’s part of the team. He makes himself part of the team, and takes responsibility for their struggles. That’s why he took to the media recently, unexpectedly and unannounced.

Think about it. For the players, a new GM brings new ideas, changes, the possibility to lose friends in the dressing room or even having to move yourself, your family. Lots of instability, of unknown… even if you’re paid to play hockey. Now is this THE reason why the Canadiens are struggling so far this season? No, no it’s not. At least, it’s not the main reason. But to downplay it as a non-factor is ignoring the reality of the life of hockey players. They like Bergevin, they don’t know what new management would bring.

Regardless of the outcome, I just pray that Mr. Molson doesn’t make the same mistake Ronald Corey made in 1995, and that Patrick Roy isn’t involved at all with any announcement attached to the Canadiens and the GM or coaching position. But something tells me that the Habs’ organisation will live to regret it if they let Bergevin walk into the sunset…

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Contract Structures Must Be Amended In CBA

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