For the Hurricanes, who open at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; BSSO, BSOH, ESPN+, NHL LIVE), winning the Stanley Cup is the only acceptable outcome after four straight playoff seasons for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. but has been unable to take the next step since reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019.
“We want to win. That’s all we’re trying to do,” Kotkaniemi said. “Anything below that is not good.”
For Kotkaniemi, it’s proving he’s ready to fill Carolina’s central second-line hole created when Vincent Trocheck he left to sign with the New York Rangers this offseason.
“I want to be a good player in this league and this will be a big step towards that,” Kotkaniemi said. “I always wanted to be with the top guys on the team and maybe now I have a good chance to play with the top guys. So I have to show that I’m worth it.”
Kotkaniemi insists he didn’t spend last season trying to prove he was worth the one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet the Hurricanes signed him to as a restricted free agent on Aug. 28, 2021. It would be understandable if he did, taking considering Carolina had to give up a first-round pick and a third-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft as compensation after the Montreal Canadiens opted not to match the offer sheet.
But with one season with the Hurricanes under his belt and the stability that comes with the eight-year, $38.56 million ($4.82 million average annual value) contract he signed on March 21, the 22-year-old said he is more determined this time.
“I feel a lot more comfortable coming in here,” Kotkaniemi said. “Last summer was kind of a mess. Everything happened very quickly and the games almost started right away (after Montreal announced they would not match the offer sheet on September 4). So I had a little more time this summer to train and concentrate everything and I came here rested and feeling well, ready to go.’
The Hurricanes approached Kotkaniemi’s first season with them almost as if he were a rookie again, bringing him along slowly (his average of 12:10 of ice time per game was 10th among their forwards who played at least 40 games) so he could to learn the system and continue to develop. Although Kotkaniemi played some wing initially, the Hurricanes quickly realized he was better suited at center.
So Kotkaniemi spent much of the season centering the fourth line with little time on the power play (1:12 per game) mixed in. The result was a steady if impressive 29 points (NHL 12 goals, 17 assists) in 66 regular season games and two assists in 14 playoff games last season.
“Obviously, he played,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “He was on the power play. There were some key roles there, but nothing like it should be now. So hopefully he’ll be ready for that.”
Whether Kotkaniemi is ready is one of the Hurricanes’ biggest questions entering the season. If not, the Hurricanes have other options to fill the second line center spot, among them Paul Stastnywho signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract on August 23.
But if Kotkaniemi can handle the second line at center, that allows Stastny to fill in elsewhere, bolstering Carolina’s forward depth while Max Pacioretty is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon.
“He’s definitely got that upside in him,” the Hurricanes front-line center said Sebastian Acho, who, like Kotkaniemi, is from Finland. “I know for a fact that he can easily play well for a while, but you have to do it consistently to get that point and this is a good challenge for him. But no doubt he can do it.”
Video: 2022-2023 Team Preview: Carolina Hurricanes
Kotkaniemi will likely start the season anchoring a young second line between Andrei Sveznikov22, and Martin Nekas23. Carolina selected Svechnikov with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, one spot before Montreal selected Kotkaniemi.
So the Hurricanes scouted Kotkaniemi extensively during his draft and see more offensive potential in him. He had an NHL career-high 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 79 games as an 18-year-old rookie in 2018-19 and has shown flashes since, including eight points (five goals, three assists). ) in 19 playoff games in 2021 to help Montreal reach the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games.
Carolina would love to replace Trocheck’s 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 81 regular season games last season.
“We must remember [Kotkaniemi is] he’s still a young player and we’re putting him in a bigger role and it’s going to take some time for him to develop to where we see him,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said. “But that’s why we signed him to a temporary deal, because we see the good. The question is when it will strike. It might take him another year or so, but we definitely think he has the skill level.”
Brind’Amour also believes Kotkaniemi has the offensive ability to play on the second line. He’ll be watching more if Kotkaniemi can match up against opponents’ top offensive linemen, which is an important part of the job.
“That will be the test,” Brind’Amour said. “I know he can play with these guys. Anyone can play with these guys. You have to be able to do that against the best guys on the other team.”
At the start of his fifth NHL season, Kotkaniemi can feel the clock ticking on his career.
“Yeah, I’m getting old, man,” he joked.
But Kotkaniemi understands this will be a pivotal season for him and the Hurricanes.
“I think it’s time to take a step forward,” he said. “I was a good guy with 30, 20 points, so I want to fix that, get a little higher in the points. But mostly, I just want to win, win the Cup. Montreal went to the final, so I saw that and I just want to I take a step forward and win the Cup and live it with this team.”