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Flyers’ Next Reclamation Project Might Not Be Who You Think

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Jesperi Kotkaniemi could be another center the Flyers consider giving an opportunity to this season. (Photo: AP)

Another year and another early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Carolina Hurricanes. Their early departure was thanks in no small part to struggling center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who recorded just one point in 11 playoff games after having seven points in 15 playoff games last year. If the Hurricanes choose to move on from the young, big-money center, he’s an easy reclamation project for the Philadelphia Flyers to target.

Kotkaniemi, 23, was the third overall pick of the Montreal Canadiens back in the 2018 NHL Draft and boasts some good size as a center, measuring in at 6-foot-2, 201 lbs.

The problem, though, is that after a 43-point breakout campaign for the Hurricanes last season, Kotkaniemi struggled greatly for most of this season. The young Finn’s average ice time dropped nearly two full minutes, and his offensive production declined to 27 points. Further to that point, Kotkaniemi’s 0.34 points per game was his lowest mark since averaging 0.22 in his age 19 season with the Canadiens in 2019-20.

The Flyers experienced some success in this regard by signing a former Canadiens first-round pick, Ryan Poehling, this past season. Poehling, 24, was drafted one year before Kotkaniemi but played only one season as a regular in Montreal before being traded to Pittsburgh. After one year there, Poehling signed with the Flyers on July 1, making them his third team in as many years.

Poehling registered career-highs in goals (11), assists (17), points (28), average ice time (14:59), and shots on goal (111) under the tutelage of John Tortorella and the rest of the Flyers’ coaching staff. The difference between him and Kotkaniemi, though, is that Poehling signed a one-year contract with the Flyers last summer before signing a contract extension on Jan. 26.

Kotkaniemi, on the other hand, is heading into the third year of an eight-year, $38.56 million contract he signed with the Hurricanes on March 21, 2022. Because the former Habs center will only be turning 24 in July, the Hurricanes can buy him out of this massive contract with extremely minimal collateral damage.

Indeed, the Hurricanes would be forced to pay him through 2036, but the good news is that buying Kotkaniemi out would save them over $20 million. In addition, Kotkaniemi’s dead cap would never exceed $835k, which is a relatively low amount, especially with the NHL’s salary cap continuing to increase.

Because the Hurricanes need to re-sign some pricey players, such as Jake Guentzel, Brett Pesce, Teuvo Teravainen, Seth Jarvis, Brady Skjei, and potentially Martin Necas, Kotkaniemi could become the in-house favorite to be bought out, thus making him a free agent. The Hurricanes cannot afford to carry dead weight on their roster with players like Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, Andrei Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal all either in their primes or climbing the ladder in age.

As for the Flyers, they might need to conduct a buyout of their own in order to give them some breathing room from the salary cap ceiling. However, Sean Couturier, Morgan Frost, and Poehling are the team’s only natural centers under contract.

If Kotkaniemi does part ways with Carolina and the Flyers can make enough cap space to reasonably strike a deal, there would be no better reclamation project on the market than a big, experienced 23-year-old center like him. At his best, Kotkaniemi would provide the Flyers with a serviceable two-way middle-six center with room to grow offensively.

At his worst… well, he can’t be much worse than he was this past season. That risk assessment is ultimately up to the Flyers to conduct.

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