The old adage surrounding offer sheets is that if one team messes with another team’s restricted free agents, they open themselves up to attack as well. After the Montreal Canadiens tendered an offer sheet to Carolina Hurricanes star Sebastian Aho two years ago, they are now facing the consequences. The ’Canes have returned the favor, announcing (in French at that) they have extended an offer sheet to Habs’ center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, which he has signed. The offer is for one year and $6,100,015. If you thought this wasn’t all about retribution, here is the kicker: the deal also includes a $20 signing bonus – Aho’s jersey number. Also this. The Canadiens have seven days to respond. They would receive first- and third-round picks if they elect not to match.
There are of course salary cap implication aplenty with this offer sheet. Kotkaniemi’s $6.1MM AAV would put Montreal approximately $8.38MM over the salary cap for 22 players with their expected LTIR relief from Shea Weber only coming in at $7.86MM. In order to match the offer sheet, the Canadiens will have to shed salary this season, enough to fit the overage and another player to round out the roster. Perhaps even more importantly, their starting number for negotiations with Kotkaniemi again next off-season begins with a $6.1MM qualifying offer. For a team with numerous expensive, long-term contracts, that simply may not be palatable. Of course, the Hurricanes face these same risks. The team would go approximately $1.52MM over the salary cap by adding Kotkaniemi, albeit with a full 23-man roster. They also could easily open up the space if they opt to again waive defenseman Jake Gardiner and his $4.05MM cap hit. The more pressing question then is whether Kotkaniemi lives up to his cap hit, which will also serve as his new QO. At the cost of a first and a third, Carolina will want to make sure Kotkaniemi is not just a one-year rental.
This all boils down to how much the Habs value Kotkaniemi, as the Hurricanes – while they had ulterior motives – clearly felt that the $6.1MM cap hit was warranted for the 21-year-old forward. Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick in 2018, has certainly shown flashes of star power. While his regular season numbers are unspectacular with 62 points in 171 NHL games, his playoff production has been stellar with nine goals and twelve points in 29 games. And while Kotkaniemi is still working on some of the fundamentals of the center position, he is a phenomenal possession player and is starting to fill out his frame and become a more physical presence. Kotkaniemi’s value is all about upside at his age. Both teams certainly see it, but only one team has ponied up the cost thus far (at least for one year). All but one offer sheet has been matched since the turn of the century. Will Montreal follow suit?
Though one of the most entertaining stories in roster building in recent memory, and not just in hockey, Carolina’s vicious response to Montreal’s attempted poaching of Aho two years ago is only likely to further deplete the likelihood of offer sheets, which are already considered a MacGuffin to most. Enjoy this while it last, it could be the final one for some time.