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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Stu Cowan: Jesperi Kotkaniemi gets much-needed fresh start in Carolina

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“Feeling confident the team is trusting you, it’s always good for a player and I’m just really, really excited,” former Canadien says.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi certainly hasn’t lost his sense of humour.

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When asked during a Zoom conference Sunday morning what he would spend the $20 signing bonus he will receive as part of the $6.1-million offer sheet he accepted from the Carolina Hurricanes that the Canadiens decided not to match on Saturday, Kotkaniemi said: “I just told my mom I’m going to give that to her for a Christmas gift. I think that’s it.”

The $20 signing bonus matches the No. 20 Sebastian Aho wears for Carolina and was a shot back at Montreal GM Marc Bergevin from Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon for the five-year, $42.295-million offer sheet the Canadiens gave Aho two years ago that included more than $20 million in signing-bonus money in the first 12 months. The Hurricanes matched that offer.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Kotkaniemi during his three seasons with the Canadiens after being the No. 3 overall pick at the 2018 NHL Draft was his sense of humour. I also loved his big smile and admired the way he handled himself at such a young age in Montreal’s hockey fishbowl, making the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old in a new country while still learning to speak English and playing on a smaller and unfamiliar North American rink.

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I’ll never forget the night Bergevin drafted Kotkaniemi and the TV cameras showed a woman in the stands at the American Airlines Center in Dallas wearing a Canadiens jersey and holding her head in her hands while looking up to the heavens in a state of shock.

I’ll also never forget watching Kotkaniemi play in a Canadiens uniform for the first time less than three months later during the NHL Rookie Showdown at Place Bell in Laval. Kotkaniemi looked lost on the ice as the Canadiens were beaten 4-0 by the Ottawa Senators rookies. Kotkaniemi had no points, was minus-2 and was in the penalty box for one of the Senators’ goals, while Brady Tkachuk scored twice for Ottawa. The same Brady Tkachuk the Senators had taken one pick after the Canadiens drafted Kotkaniemi.

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The comparisons between Kotkaniemi and Tkachuk, who plays left wing, will probably never end with some Canadiens fans, even though Kotkaniemi has now moved on to Carolina. In 171 regular-season games with the Canadiens Kotkaniemi had 22-40-62 totals. In 198 games with the Senators, Tkachuk has 60-65-125 totals.

But the Canadiens needed a centreman at the time, so they decided to draft by position and took Kotkaniemi, which certainly looks like a mistake now. Defenceman Quinn Hughes, selected seventh overall at the same draft, has 11-86-97 totals in 129 games with the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s easy to forget Kotkaniemi is only 21 and that some players develop quicker than others in the NHL. A fresh start in Carolina is the best thing that could have happened for Kotkaniemi after he was made a healthy scratch by the Canadiens for the last two games of the Stanley Cup final last season. The one-year contract worth $6,100,015 — Kotkaniemi wears No. 15 — is a big added bonus.

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Hurricanes GM Don Waddell confirmed Sunday that the Hurricanes had tried to make a trade for Kotkaniemi before taking the offer-sheet route, making it as difficult as possible for the Canadiens to match. Waddell added that the plan is to start Kotkaniemi out as a left-winger since the Hurricanes already have depth at centre with Aho, Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal.

“He’ll get to play with some very good players and we think he’s got the skill to be able to do that,” Waddell said. “We were looking to add to our top group there and to be able to add a player like Jesperi at 21 years old it’s only going to continue to get better. We feel very fortunate about that.”

The Hurricanes have displayed much more confidence in Kotkaniemi than the Canadiens did.

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“It’s a great opportunity,” Kotkaniemi said. “Feeling confident the team is trusting you, it’s always good for a player and I’m just really, really excited for this opportunity and just can’t wait to get things started.

“I just knew Carolina has a great team,” he added. “A couple of (fellow) Finns over there (Aho and Teuvo Teravainen). I think they’re one (Stanley) Cup contender next year, so it’s always an honour to be a part of a team like that.”

As for his time with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi said: “At the end, I think the whole journey over there I think was a good run. There’s ups and downs every time … I think that’s normal. I made some really good friends over there from the team and off the ice, too. So I only have good things to say about them.”

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When asked about how the Canadiens worked to develop him as a player, Kotkaniemi said: “I think it could have been better. But we played in the Stanley Cup final last year, so can’t really blame anything. I think at the end it was a pretty good run.”

Now that run is over in Montreal for Kotkaniemi. He obviously still has his sense of humour and maybe his big smile will return in Carolina.

Time will tell.

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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