Hurricanes’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi primed for Montreal return

MONTREAL (AP) — After signing a surprising offer sheet in restricted free agency with the Carolina Hurricanes in late August, Jesperi Kotkaniemi waited seven days to see if the Montreal Canadiens would match the one-year, $6.1 million deal.

“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, decided to walk away from the contract with Kotkaniemi despite selecting him third overall in the 2018 NHL draft. The 21-year-old 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.”

There’s no debate that Kotkaniemi failed to live up to expectations with the Canadiens. He was demoted to the minors in the 2019-20 season and scored just five goals and 20 points during the pandemic-truncated 2020-21 season.

Kotkaniemi did score five times and added three assists in 19 playoff games when the Canadiens made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. But he was a healthy scratch to open the first round, and again in Games 4 and 5 of the championship series before Montreal bowed out to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“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.”

He was, however, critical on his way out the door about how his development was handled by a team desperate for help down the middle. Kotkaniemi was passed in the pecking order by center Nick Suzuki, who recently signed an eight-year, $63 million extension.

Kotkaniemi ended his career with the Canadiens with 22 goals and 62 points in 171 regular-season games.

The Hurricanes are trying to transform Kotkaniemi, who indicated he’s open to signing with Carolina long-term, into a winger on their top line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.

“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.

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