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The Hurricanes’ swipe back at the Canadiens is more than just spite from the Aho offer

Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the NHL playoffs The Carolina Hurricanes have signed Kotkaniemi to a one-year offer sheet worth $6.1 million. The Canadiens have seven days to match.

Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the NHL playoffs The Carolina Hurricanes have signed Kotkaniemi to a one-year offer sheet worth $6.1 million. The Canadiens have seven days to match.

Put aside for a moment — if that’s even possible — the extraordinary pettiness that the Carolina Hurricanes’ offer sheet for Jesperi Kotkaniemi was swaddled in like gaudy gift wrap. It’s actually a shrewd hockey move, even at $6 million and change.

True, the Hurricanes probably wouldn’t have been as motivated to put the Montreal Canadiens in the absolute fix they’re in now if the Canadiens hadn’t offered Sebastian Aho that front-loaded offer sheet that was a complete no-brainer to match, even if it will end up costing the Hurricanes down the road.

But this is more than retribution served at 0 degrees Kelvin, overflowing with snidery, from the $20 signing bonus to the salvos of Twitter trolling and the press release cut-and-pasted from Montreal’s own on Aho.

Think about it this way: Would you want a promising, 21-year-old two-way center, arguably rushed to the NHL, for what should be a late first-round pick and a third? Of course you would, even if he only scored five goals last season and was curiously scratched during the Stanley Cup Final, the genesis of the bad blood the Hurricanes are currently exploiting.

The Kotkaniemi offer sheet is also the latest salvo in a quietly simmering feud between the franchises that replaced the open Adams Division warfare of the the Hartford days. The old-money-nouveau-riche tension between the two franchises, the most storied in NHL history and the most mocked, didn’t start with the Canadiens’ offer sheet to Aho.

It goes back 20 years, to the extraordinary events of two remarkable playoff series, catalyzed by the disbelief that a team from Caroline du Nord, of all places, could eliminate — and even outright embarrass — the Habs on their own hallowed home ice. Twice. It was surely coincidence that for many years a new relocation rumor seemed to bubble up as soon as the Canadiens’ charter left the ground on its way to Raleigh.

The Aho offer sheet didn’t arise from that, but it certainly fed into it, mocking Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon’s willingness to dip into his pocket to pay Aho an immediate $11 million signing bonus. Now Dundon and the Hurricanes have returned the favor, and not merely for revenge.

Reap, sow.

The fact that Kotkaniemi will be paid about double what he’s probably worth this season is just the price to get that done, a $3 million tax paid to the player instead of the Canadiens. And there’s nothing stopping the Hurricanes from doing a long-term deal with Kotkaniemi in January at a more reasonable fair-market rate for a young center who hasn’t quite lived up to his draft position, but still has plenty of time to do so. (Should he be willing to factor the extra $3 million in his bank account into the bargain, all the better, although he’s certainly under no obligation to do so.)

At worst, he’s a promising young forward who fills the immediate hole in the Hurricanes’ top nine, making it tougher for top prospect Seth Jarvis to make the team — not the worst thing in the world for his development. (Jack Drury could still fit on the fourth line, and just might.) At best, Kotkaniemi is a future replacement for Vincent Trocheck at center, although the Hurricanes see Trocheck as a long-term piece of their core even in a smaller role someday.

There are salary-cap issues for a team with about $4.5 million in space after Andrei Svechnikov’s extension was finalized Thursday, but those can theoretically be addressed by putting Jake Gardiner on long-term injured reserve — which is, nevertheless, not the magic wand fans sometimes think it is. The Hurricanes would have to be $4 million over the cap to take full advantage of it, which would require another move or signing, and Gardiner would have to fail his physical or be willing, essentially, to retire.

That’s the easiest path forward, but it’s not entirely assured.

And whatever issues the Hurricanes have are nickels and dimes compared to the Canadiens’ own cap issues.

They already lost their best two-way center, Phillip Danault, in free agency. Losing Kotkaniemi would leave them very soft down the middle but matching the offer sheet would put them about $8 million over the cap. It may make more sense for the Canadiens to take two draft picks for the player picked immediately after Svechnikov than further restructure their roster to fit him in, especially since the Canadiens would almost certainly have to qualify him at that salary next summer. This is a gift that would keep on giving and giving.

The Aho offer will cost the Hurricanes in what might have been years six, seven or eight of the long-term deal he could have signed with them instead of accepting the offer sheet. There’s time to plan for that. This hits the Habs where it hurts right now.

So it’s kind of a no-lose for the Hurricanes — they’d happily give up a first and a third and $3 million for Kotkaniemi in a vacuum — and very much a no-win for the Habs. That shouldn’t get lost in all the extracurriculars, as entertaining or immature as they may be, depending on one’s perspective.

It’s a hockey move above all else, even if there’s so much else.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock joined The News & Observer in 2000 and has covered five Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.

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