Erik Karlsson or Matt Duchene? It’s All Here.

Twitter is heating up… rumours are starting to fly… NHL Insiders are starting to get some material fed to them, which they pass on to fans… players and teams are jousting for position, looking for a Summer game plan. The NHL Draft will be held in Vancouver on Friday, June 21st and Saturday, June 22nd. The very next day, pending free agents (restricted and unrestricted) will be allowed to speak to teams other than the one they finished the season with, in order to gauge not only interest, but contract details to see if there is a fit or not. How exciting!

When you’re in a hot bed like Montreal or Toronto, this is enough to keep everyone in the sports media industry employed and when big names are being mentioned, it makes front page of local newspapers and occupy sports radio and TV shows for days. Remember the John Tavares watch last summer? Remember the Toronto sports TV stations going on, and on, and on about the possibility of him going to the Maple Leafs? Remember how they were all but laughing at the Montreal Canadiens because JT didn’t even want to give them a chance to talk to him? Well folks, the roles are reversed this year.

Two of the top pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs), defenseman Erik Karlsson and centre Matt Duchene, seem to have strong ties to the Canadiens and that, folks, has the City buzzing as the Stanley Cup finals between the rival Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues are battling it out for the Holy Grail, still two and a half weeks away from the June 23rd date.

Matt Duchene

It’s been well documented that one of Duchene’s favourite teams growing up was the Montreal Canadiens. While this doesn’t guarantee that a player, later in life, will want to play for them, it certainly doesn’t hurt as we witnessed a year ago with Tavares.

Sportsnet and CBC analyst and well respected NHL Insider Elliott Friedman had this to say on a recent 31 thoughts podcasts on pending UFAs:

Yes, Max Domi did well in his first year at centre. Some fans are concerned that moving him back to the wing risks bringing him back to his production in Arizona. It’s not the case. Both Max and his father Tie Domi have said numerous times that the younger Domi needs to play in a hockey market. He thrives under pressure. It’s not the fact that he was moved to centre that brought him success, it’s the breath of fresh air of playing in Montreal that did it. They believe that. I believe that.

Matt Duchene stating that he’s a huge Habs and Avs’ fan growing up

Adding a legitimate offensive centre like Duchene, a perennial 30 goals scorer, a guy whose faceoffs’ percentage has ranged anywhere between 52.18% to 62.57% in the last five years, and the potential of putting Domi to his left, would improve the Canadiens immensely.

Yes, Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be good and he’ll continue to improve but we can’t make the same mistake the Edmonton Oilers have done with their young prospects by putting them in roles they’re not ready for. Playing on a 2A or 2B line (Phillip Danault centering the other) and sheltering him for a couple more seasons would be the sound decision.

Yes, Ryan Poehling had a great game in his NHL debuts last season. But until the World Junior tournament last year, the guy has never been seen as more than a future third line centre. He’s used to playing 30 games a year in the NCAA and will need some maturing. Not physically in his case, but hockey-wise.

Yes, Nick Suzuki had a great camp last year and he had a fantastic year in the OHL, particularly in the playoffs. He is the Canadiens’ only right-handed centre prospect, which is important. But both he and Poehling would greatly benefit from a year or two of maturing under Laval Rockets’ head coach Joel Bouchard. It’s the old adage: better to play big minutes with a key role in the AHL as a young player than fourth line minutes in the NHL. As good as they are, they are not (yet) in Kotkaniemi’s talent pool.

Duchene’s next contract

I’m not in the secrets of the gods here. I have however done some research and from it, I personally figure that Duchene, who earned $6 million per season, should see a substantial raise. I figure that anywhere between $8-9 million would be in the ballpark as this would put him in the category of the likes of Claude Giroux, Steven Stamkos, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Getzlaf, Blake Wheeler and yes… Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

If you combine with my Facebook page pool, the total is:
45.5% – Duchene
44.7% – Karlsson
9.8% – None of them
Combined total of 1,096 participants.

Erik Karlsson

According to the Ottawa Sun, citing a well-connected source, the two-times Norris Trophy winner hopes to receive competitive offers from two teams in particular — the Senators and the Montreal Canadiens. Why? Because his wife, Melinda, who was born and raised in Ottawa, is homesick and would very much like to live close to her family again. While Toronto and Buffalo are also relatively close to Canada’s capital, the source says that, as far as he knows, they’re not on the Karlsson’s list.

Many Habs’ fans are going completely crazy about this news. Some because they have yet to swallow the P.K. Subban trade, others because they remember the Karlsson of… three years ago! You know, the fast skating, point per game player who was a big contributor to getting the Senators to the Stanley Cup finals. Those people conveniently forgot the Karlsson two years ago who battled a serious ankle injury, and this past season’s Karlsson battling a sore groin which he just had surgery on.

The narrative that the addition of Karlsson will make the Canadiens Cup contenders is based on him getting back to his old form of three years ago. Further, did the San Jose Sharks, a much better team than Montreal, a team with Brent Burns on the blue line, win the Cup with Karlsson? Why would the addition of Karlsson make the Canadiens a Stanley Cup contender?

No matter where he signs, Karlsson should have 11-12 million reasons to smile.

I’m from the school of thoughts that a defenseman’s number one job is to defend. Points are an added bonus. For those who, like me, were fortunate enough to watch Bobby Orr play, he was an outstanding defender and tough as nail. The bonus is that he was an excellent skater who changed the game by supporting, even driving the offense. But he was a defender first. Karlsson? People look at the points and “forget” about the defense. Oh you want proof?

In 2016-2017, the Sens’ All-Star had, in my opinion, the best all-around season of his career. He managed 71 points in 77 games with a respectable +10 rating. In the playoffs that year, he added 18 points in 19 games with an outstanding +13. Even his 2015-2016 season when he had 82 points in 82 games wasn’t that great considering that he was -2 that year. Oh I know, plus-minus isn’t the end of it all but if you’re on the ice for more goals against than goals’ for, it’s never a good thing. It negates the points you put up.

His play drastically dropped in the past two years, mostly due to injuries affecting his speed, as pointed out above. In 124 regular season games, he managed 107 points (12 of them goals) and was… -19 overall. While some people are raving about his 16 points in 19 games in the playoffs this postseason, he was -3. His teammate Brent Burns had 16 points in 20 games and was +2. Remember folks… in order to help your team, you have to be on the ice for more goals for than goals against and that, even when putting up a lot of points as to win hockey games, you need to outscore your opponents!

Now that’s just hockey-wise folks. Think a bit further, as will Marc Bergevin. Subban makes $9 million a season. Drew Doughty in Los Angeles makes $11 million. Karlsson is on record saying that he won’t accept anything less than fair market value. Based on that, isn’t it fair to say that he will request between $11.5-12 million per season? Is the gamble of him returning to form worth taking that chance, with a bullet-proof No-Movement Clause protecting him against expansion draft or trades? As a fan with crystal balls, who cares, right? As hockey management, in the real world of the NHL with a salary cap, rest assured that it does matter a whole lot.

Karlsson’s next contract

Again, no scoop or particular science here folks, certainly not pretending to be “in the know” but simply looking at logic. Up until recently, Subban was the highest paid defenseman with a cap hit of $9 million. That was before the L.A. Kings signed Drew Doughty to a $11 million cap hit. Karlsson himself stating that he wants fair market value would bring him to, at the very least, in $11.5-12 million range. Now that’s a whole lot of money to tie into a player period, but especially one coming off not one, but two serious lower body injuries impeding his greatest strength: skating.

Conclusion

If I’m Marc Bergevin, I go hard at Duchene and I consider lowballing Karlsson. Preferably, there are a couple of good options for left-handed defensemen rumoured to be on the market: Nick Leddy and TJ Brodie (yes, Brodie is a LD even if he played RD due to the Flames’ overload of LD). Duchene up the middle, Domi moving to left wing, sacrifice one of Tomas Tatar, Paul Byron or Andrew Shaw to get one of Leddy or Brodie and you have a better team without jeopardizing the Canadiens’ entire future cap into a very questionable player in Karlsson. Go Habs Go!

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Only Two Options for Kotkaniemi

KotkaDraft

Who said life was easy and that decisions were straightforward, that things were black or white? We’re all faced with though decisions, wondering if we made the right one. Whether it’s about the post-secondary school you are going to attend or the subject you’ll be taking, or the job offers, the woman or man in your life, it’s hard to know for sure what to do. Just yesterday, I bought a new (to me) truck and I had a hard time picking between two. I still don’t know if I made the right decision but at some point, one has to make that difficult decision. Hockey is no different for people in the business, for those who have to balance what’s good for a player, a team, in the short, medium or long term.

Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens are weeks away from having to make that difficult decision once again with a couple of their top prospects. As they decided to keep Alex Galchenyuk with the big club as an 18 year-old in his rookie season, they are facing the same dilemma with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. In the case of Suzuki, they have two choices: back to junior or stay in Montreal. Because of regulations between junior clubs, the AHL and the NHL, he cannot play for the Laval Rockets. If I had to bet money, I’d say that he will play one more year junior but your guess is as good as mine.

Kotkaniemi’s situation is slightly different in the sense that since he’s not coming from junior hockey, he can go to the AHL and be developed by newly hired coach JoĂ«l Bouchard. So for him, there are three choices: the NHL, the AHL or back to Ässät in the Liiga Finnish Elite League, where he played last season, cumulating 29 points in 57 games as an 18 year-old. And that’s where Bergevin and his management group have to be very careful as they cannot afford to let this one slip as did Galchenyuk.

The consensus is that Kotkaniemi is proving not only to Habs’ fans and management, but to the entire NHL that being picked third overall wasn’t a stretch. He is improving with every exhibition game he’s playing in, showcasing his great hockey IQ. He has the skills, the demeanour and frame to play in the NHL today. He just needs to add some meat on his teenage bones. Standing at 6-foot 2-inches, he only weighs 184 lbs and playing against the biggest, fastest and strongest players in the world, it’s a huge risk for injuries.

The AHL option

Kotkaniemi’s situation is not without reminding me of an Edmonton Oilers former first overall pick. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the talent to play in the NHL. He had the smarts, the speed, the hands and the height to play at that level. What he didn’t have quite yet is the weight… and he spent a few years on the injured list. Some around the NHL, particularly the Oilers, will argue that it slowed down his development. Had he had the option of playing in Europe against men, things could have been different for him. He was too strong for junior, not physically mature enough for the NHL.

Personally, I would strongly suggest that the AHL is not the place for the Canadiens’ top prospect. When the NHL, in their ‘wisdom’, decided to go to a two-referees system, they not only killed consistency by putting two different judgments on the ice, but they added incompetent people in places where they have no business being in. Worse, it created a ripple effect in every single league below. Guys who shouldn’t be in the AHL are now officiating in that league, at a level over their head, creating a dangerous situation for players down there.

Sending Kotkaniemi to play under Bouchard would be ideal as he would be at proximity to better monitor his ice time, his game situation and he could receive a call-up if or when need be. It would also throw him to the wolves, playing against men who have aspirations to make a name for themselves and showing the kid what North American hockey is all about. Opposing coaches would be targeting him in their game plan and you can bet that intimidation would be in their plan to get him out of his game… or out of the game. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that the NHL is a better option than the AHL.

NHL or Ässät

KotkaniemiAssatOn the other hand, the best option for the Canadiens’ young protege would be the Finish Elite League, playing under his father Mikael, who playing him on the wing last season, but who already said that he’s willing to put him at centre if that’s the Habs’ brass’ wish. Playing on the bigger ice surface, where he can continue working on his skating and puck skills, would be in my opinion not only the best option, but the only option if Bergevin and coach Claude Julien judge that he needs some maturing. In addition, the team would keep him one more year under their control as his professional contract would be differed.

In the meantime, we will enjoy watching this kid continue to strut his stuff, getting an entire fanbase excited about the prospect of having him centre one of the top lines, possible with Suzuki and other top centre prospect Ryan Poehling. Go Habs Go!