‘It felt good. It felt really good.’ Hurricanes forward sports a new look at practice

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For the first time in his NHL career, Jesperi Kotkaniemi wasn’t wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey to a team practice Thursday.

Kotkaniemi instead had on a Carolina Hurricanes practice sweater, and a Canes helmet with No. 82 on the back. Also, he was skating in North Carolina and not in Canada, another drastic change for the young forward.

Kotkaniemi was on the ice at Wake Competition Center with Jordan Staal, Teuvo Teravainen, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and others, putting in an informal workout with his new teammates — and smiling through much of it.

“It was great,” Kotkaniemi said in an interview after the skate.

“Lot of great guys in the room. We had a little game at the end. It was a lot of fun out there.

“It felt good. It felt really good.”

It has been something of a whirlwind for Kotkaniemi, 21, since his agent called him in Finland in late August with some interesting news: The Carolina Hurricanes had tendered an offer sheet to the Montreal Canadiens for the restricted free agent, with a one-year contract worth $6.1 million.

His initial reaction?

“I knew there was a couple of options,” Kotkaniemi said.

The Canadiens made the Finn the No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. They put him in the lineup at 18, let him play, let him mix good plays with mistakes. Their options after the offer sheet were simple: either match it and keep Kotkaniemi or let him walk and take two draft picks in the 2022 draft from the Canes. They let him walk.

“I’m really happy to be here,” Kotkaniemi said Thursday.

Kotkaniemi arrived in Raleigh just before midnight Wednesday, with Teravainen, a fellow Finn, waiting to pick him up at RDU. Teravainen and Kotkaniemi share the same agent, and Teravainen also had the experience of changing NHL teams, being dealt to the Canes by the Chicago Blackhawks — for whom he’d also been a first-round pick — in June 2016.

“I haven’t seen him play many games but he has a real good shot, he can see the ice really good and is a smart player,” Teravainen said Thursday after their on-ice session “I think he can add a lot. I think he’s a great young player who’s only going to get better, and that’s good for us.”

By saying “great,” a term also used by Canes center Sebastian Aho this week in describing Kotkaniemi, it’s more about potential than production after three NHL seasons. Kotkaniemi has a modest 62 points in 171 career regular-season games, although his nine goals in 29 playoff games is more promising.

“I think when I’m at my best and I’m on my game, I’m moving well and make plays and score a few,” he said. “It’s going to be like that this year.”

After the Habs failed to match the offer sheet, Kotkaniemi said in a media call that he did not believe he had developed enough in his time in Montreal. That raised some eyebrows in Montreal, and around the NHL.

It’s also a comment Kotkaniemi did not expand upon on Thursday, saying, “You know, I just think it could have been better a little bit. ... Just overall.”

Carolina will give him that chance. Canes president and general manager Don Waddell has said Kotkaniemi likely would be used at left wing rather than center. Kotkaniemi said he would be comfortable on the wing, if that’s the need and the best fit, noting he played the wing in Finland before coming to the NHL.

For now, he’s just glad to get started with the Canes.sticking on a cap with the Hurricanes logo for the interview.

“I feel this will be real good for me,” he said. “I thought I got a little stuck over there (in Montreal), so a new start will be good.”