There was a time in the NHL when yesterday’s bombshell news about the Carolina Hurricanes signing Montreal’s restricted free agent Jesper Kotkaniemi would have been considered normal. In the 1990’s, dozens of players were signed by rival clubs, despite being restricted. This included some of the biggest names and best players of the day, including Sergei Fedorov, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Keith Tkachuk, Teemu Selanne, Scott Stevens (not once, but twice) and Kevin Stevens — who Boston signed in the summer of 1991 after the Penguins’ first Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh matched the offer.
Kotkaniemi, however, represents just the 10th time in the 16 year history of the NHL’s salary cap era that a player has signed an offer sheet with a different team. Only once in the past 16 years has the initial team not matched (2007, when Anaheim allowed Dustin Penner to go to Edmonton).
Whether an intentional effort to collude and suppress player salaries, or just follow an unwritten “gentleman’s rule” to not sign each other’s free agents (and thus end up colluding to suppress player salaries), NHL teams very rarely target each other’s “restricted” free agents.
Carolina signing Kotkaniemi illustrates another reason why teams don’t often attempt to poach RFA’s, it creates rivals.
Two summers ago, it was Montreal attempting to flex their muscle as a large market club and steal away Carolina’s best player in Sebastien Aho. Aho signed with the Canadiens as an RFA to a rich $42.2 million, five year contract. The real poison comes in the contract details: Montreal signed Aho to be paid league minimum in salary each year and $38.6 million in total signing bonuses, including over $21 million in the first two seasons. The Canadiens couldn’t have made a contract less attractive to a small market team like Carolina.
This tactic is the same one used by Philadelphia when they signed Nashville’s RFA Shea Weber in 2012 and gave $68 million in signing bonuses due in the first six years of the massive $110 million total deal. This tactic is also 0/2 in getting the player, since the smaller market team in both instance made the difficult and painful decision to match the terms and keep their star player.
While Nashville didn’t retaliate in the form of signing one of the Flyers players, the Hurricanes joined #TeamPetty and made sure to not only sign one of Montreal’s top young players in the first opportunity they got, but also rub it in that they were going out of their way to be petty.
Someone told me there was a $20 signing bonus in this, and I thought they were joking. https://t.co/TwImiGV1Hu— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) August 28, 2021
It’s unheard of in NHL contract terms to have a $20 signing bonus. $20 is the jersey number that Aho wears.
The #Canes didn’t miss a single detail. pic.twitter.com/ANcBkAIhsI— Frank Seravalli (@frank_seravalli) August 28, 2021
They also announced the transaction in French, a staple of a Montreal tweet in a nice little touch.
Was this a wise move by Carolina? That depends on what happens next.
Montreal now has a week to have the option to match Kotkaniemi’s contract and keep him at $6.1 million next season (which will also require a $6.1 million qualifying offer next summer), or they can let him go to Carolina and receive a first and a third round pick in 2022 as compensation.
It might be a squeeze, but the Canadiens probably have the cap space to fit Kotkaniemi if they want, given that captain Shea Weber is injured and not expected to play next season.
Still, Carolina has ruined Kotkaniemi for Montreal. They either keep him at a $6.1 million cap hit that he likely isn’t going to live up to, or they lose what was a high pick and still promising young player. It’s a nice revenge plot.
The downside for Carolina is if Montreal doesn’t play ball and lets Kotkaniemi go. As mentioned above, this has only happened once in the last 16 years that a team lets a player go. Even if it’s via pride, teams are always committed to not let a rival “steal” one of “their” players. (Still kinda funny how a restricted free agent in hockey is usually a lot more restricted then they are free).
For Carolina, really they shouldn’t want Montreal to call their bluff and give up the player. Which makes it funny, Kotkaniemi is the pawn at this point. Just caught up in between two sides who are angry with one another. It’s a good situation for him, he’ll end up making more money next season because of it, but this whole dispute really has very little to actually do with the player involved, ironically enough.
But that also means that this emotionally driven, petty dispute is going to have a negative consequence for who ends up with Kotkaniemi. He scored 5 goals in 56 games last year, and while at times he was one of Montreal’s better forwards, he was also a healthy scratch in the playoffs at other times. He just turned 21 and could have a bright future, but paying $6.1 million this season (and, remember, next season too) is a terrible value.
The usual upside of young players for NHL teams, especially on their second contracts, is that they are great values. Kotkaniemi did not have salary arbitration rights, his only chance to get an immediate good pay day was likely on a 2-3 year bridge deal or simply accept whatever Montreal wanted to pay him for next season if he wanted to play in the NHL.
Carolina changed that big time with their beef over Aho with Montreal, but will it backfire on them? The team that didn’t want to pay $3 million for a largely untested goalie who did really well last season is going to pay $6.1 million for a young forward? Ouch. Add in that same team reportedly only offered an elite defenseman Dougie Hamilton $6.5 million annually and watched him leave for a $9.0 million market value is going to go well-above market value to....score some points on twitter and stick it to the Canadiens while making their own team lesser?
It’s a strange situation. That’s what happens with emotionally driven conflicts, which is surely why the NHL would rather see their member clubs keep the forbidden door of offer sheets closed. Carolina just burst through it, and they may end up suffering the pain they meant to put on Montreal because of it.