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Circled on the Calendar: Canadiens have Kotkaniemi-sized hole in the lineup

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Montreal Canadiens

It’s not quite the return of the Montreal Canadiens prodigal son, is it?

More pretentious than anything.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi will surely be jeered and booed tonight by Montreal Canadiens fans in his return to the Bell Centre. Kotkaniemi and his new team the Carolina Hurricanes are in town for the first time since he signed a one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet in late August.

The Montreal Canadiens decided not to match and let their former third overall pick join the Canes for first and third round picks on on Sept.4th. Now the off-ice rivalry the NHL never knew it needed, Habs general manager Marc Bergevin versus Canes owner Tom Dundon, continues tonight.

Oh, and there will be a hockey game of some importance.

After all, the Montreal Canadiens are winless and pointless four games into their regular season.

Moments after the Habs announced that they wouldn’t be matching the offer-sheet for Kotkaniemi, the team acquired centreman Christian Dvorak from the Arizona Coyotes. But Dvorak is more of a like-for-like replacement for the departed Phillip Danault, who signed with Los Angeles Kings in free agency.

The Montreal Canadiens are still yet to replace Kotkaniemi in the lineup and it was apparent at practice yesterday. His former third line spot was filled by winger Mathieu Perreault between Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield. Before that, Jake Evans and Adam Brooks have tried to grab a hold of that role with less than limited success. Perhaps the club expected Ryan Poehling to take the next step and make that spot his own. But he couldn’t crack the team out of training camp.

McLean's Pub

Now, it looks as though Bergevin will papier-mache the Kotkaniemi-sized hole in his lineup for the time being. In a surprise meeting with the media on Wednesday, the Habs general manager said that despite the team getting blown out the night before at home to San Jose, he won’t be panicked into a move.

“I don’t feel the need,” said Bergevin when asked about the possibility of making an early deal Wednesday. “It has nothing to do with cap space, it has to do with the group we have and just to make a change just to make a change. I do like our team. There’s some pretty good hockey players downstairs that are not playing to their potential and until they do there’s nothing that I’m going to do to…change a fourth line player just to say I’m making a change, I don’t believe in that.”

The GM is right. Now is not the time to panic. Just yet. But it isn’t a fourth-line player he needs. The Canadiens are glaringly missing an offensive centreman in the middle of their lineup early on. Maybe Jake Evans, if he stays healthy, can grow into a steady third-line centre role. But creating offence isn’t his game. Lining up between offensive players like Caufield and Toffoli is the kind of opportunity Kotkaniemi would have relished. But because he hasn’t adequately been replaced, a team that is reliant on scoring from the wings is missing a creative force down the middle.

There will be bad blood on the ice tonight between former teammates, there’s no doubt. In the press box between general managers and owners. The Hurricanes have an opportunity to embarrass a fragile team and fanbase by sending them to an 0-5 start.

No matter the outcome though, the Canadiens organization will only get over letting Kotkaniemi go when they find his replacement. And that hasn’t happened yet.

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