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Jesperi Kotkaniemi primed for Montreal return after bolting for Carolina

Jesperi Kotkaniemi had already mentioned the "two good options" he faced.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi had already mentioned the "two good options" he faced.

Having put pen to paper on a surprising offer sheet in restricted free agency with the Carolina Hurricanes in late August, the Finnish centre waited seven days to see if the Montreal Canadiens — the team that selected him third overall at the 2018 NHL draft — would match the lucrative one-year, US$6.1-million pact.

"That week went really fast," Kotkaniemi recalled Tuesday. "Didn't think about that too much, just try to live my normal life during that.

"Just enjoy the moment."

The Canadiens, of course, eventually decided to walk away from the contract, opening the door for Kotkaniemi to join Carolina, while Montreal received the Hurricanes' first- and third-round picks in 2022 as compensation.

But asked a different way about those "two good options" during a virtual media availability with reporters ahead of his return to the Bell Centre — "I have the feeling that if Montreal would have matched you would be unhappy. Am I wrong or am I reading you (properly)?" — his preference became pretty clear. 

"That's a question I can't answer," the 21-year-old responded. "That's, I feel, a little inappropriate."

Kotkaniemi and his Hurricanes will be in Montreal on Thursday night for a game that was circled the moment his move was made official.

"That was one game on my schedule that I looked out for," he said. "It'll be fun to see old teammates, some fans there. 

"It will be a blast."

It's also sure to be an emotional night both on the ice and in the stands. 

There will be some cheers for a player that suited up at age 18 for Montreal and scored some big goals, but also never matured into the No. 1 centre the organization hoped he would become.

And there will no doubt be some boos, even if fans understand signing the big-money offer sheet was the best thing financially for Kotkaniemi and his family.

"Everyone has their own opinion," he said. "I just did what was best for me at the moment. 

"Everyone can do whatever they want ... let's just go with that."

There's no debate Kotkaniemi failed to live up to expectations with the Canadiens. He was demoted to the minors in 2019-20 and put up just five goals and 20 points during the NHL's pandemic-truncated 2020-21 campaign, which made the Hurricanes' plunge even more surprising, even though it appeared on some level to be retribution for the Canadiens' failed attempt to pry RFA centre Sebastian Aho out of Carolina in 2019.

Kotkaniemi, who still has plenty of upside, scored five times and added three assists in 19 playoff contests in 2021 as the Canadiens made an improbable run to last season's Stanley Cup final. But he was a healthy scratch to open the first round, and again in Games 4 and 5 of the title series before Montreal bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

His exit meeting with head coach Dominique Ducharme seemed to run much longer than most other players when the Canadiens met the media on locker clean out day in July.

"I have really good memories," Kotkaniemi said Tuesday when asked if there were any hard feelings in Montreal. "Grateful that they drafted me and gave me a chance. That was a great spot to play for three years. Everyone knows they've got unbelievable fans, great teammates — can't wish for a better way to start my NHL career. 

"It was great."

He was, however, also critical on his way out the door about how his development was handled by a team desperate for help down the middle.

Kotkaniemi wound up getting passed in the centre pecking order by Nick Suzuki — he just signed an eight-year, US$63-million extension last week that locks him up through 2030 — and ended his career with the Canadiens having registered just 22 goals and 62 points in 171 regular-season games.

Asked why things didn't work out with Montreal, Kotkaniemi chose to deflect.

"It think it worked out pretty well," he said. "We went to the Stanley Cup final, but lost. 

"It was a pretty good run."

The Hurricanes are currently trying to transform Kotkaniemi, who indicated he's open to signing with Carolina long-term, into a winger on their top line with Aho and Teuvo Teravainen — a pair of fellow Finns.

"Winger spot is still a little bit new to me," said Kotkaniemi, who's without a point through two games. "They're helping me with that every day. Getting a lot of new tips and advice.

"I'm just part of this team ... I belong here."

Not that long ago, he no doubt felt the same about Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2021.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press