On June 22, 2018, in Dallas, before the first round of the draft got started, the chatter overheard by this writer was whether Canadiens general manager (GM) Marc Bergevin would select either Filip Zadina or Brady Tkachuk, two highly-touted prospects. Instead, many were stunned when he selected the sixth-ranked European prospect, Finnish center, Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall selection.
That second-guessing continues today, as some have called Kotkaniemi a bust, while others consider him a disappointment so far. However, his play in the summer of 2018 during development camp, rookie camp and eventually, the main camp quieted some early doubters as he earned head coach Claude Julien’s trust and cracked the Canadiens lineup as the third-line center.
When Kotkaniemi earned his roster spot, he became the first athlete born in 2000 to play in any major sport in North America. He also became the second-youngest player in franchise history to score his first career NHL goal, after Mario Tremblay in 1974-75.
During his rookie season, he demonstrated dramatic improvements in every aspect of his game as the season wore on. His faceoffs improved, his shot, his play along the boards, his competitiveness and more. He also began to use his size to muscle his way into the slot as seen here:
He played 79 games that season, scoring 11 goals and 34 points with an impressive 57.0% Corsi For. While he was being sheltered on the third line with 61.9% offensive zone starts, he was still capable of using that to his advantage and played a large role in the Canadiens’ surprising 25-point improvement in their 96-point season in 2019-20.
A Difficult Sophmore Season
Kotkaniemi entered his second NHL season with expectations to improve on his strong rookie campaign. Unfortunately, he suffered the fabled “sophomore slump.” After putting up 34 points as a rookie, he only scored six goals and eight points in 36 games as a 19-year-old. His offensive game suffered, so did his defensive game; he took fewer shots, his faceoff skills regressed, as did his possession game, his physical game, essentially every aspect of his game slid in 2019-20.
However, his down season was not completely in his control, as he suffered a groin injury late in the offseason that slowed his training and his first step speed. That injury and an added 15 pounds of muscle, made a difference in his skating and caused him to chase the play in all three zones. He was beginning to rediscover his stride when he suffered a concussion after a hit by Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov in December.
When he returned to the lineup, he was still having difficulties defensively and mercifully, Bergevin sent Kotkaniemi to Laval. Under Rocket head coach Joel Bouchard, he earned more ice time in all situations, which helped him work on his game and rebuild his confidence while still playing in a highly competitive and physical league. During this time, Kotkaniemi’s offensive instincts were on full display as he controlled the play over 200 feet of ice and generated offence.
Before his season-ending spleen injury on Mar. 7, versus the Cleveland Monsters, Kotkaniemi was a dominant force offensively on most nights, scoring 13 points in 13 AHL games. However, as the hockey world returns to the ice, the Canadiens’ 6-foot-2 center is slowly getting healthy but, because of his injuries, Kotkaniemi is not expected to play in the play-in series versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While injuries and the added muscle mass seem to have slowed Kotkaniemi’s skating, it was always a flaw in his game that needed improvement. He’s not a bad skater, but in today’s NHL, where speed and mobility is the name of the game, it needed work.
Kotkaniemi is working with well-known skating coach Janne Hainanen to add speed to his game. He is the same coach that worked with Teuvo Teravainen after his first season with the Carolina Hurricanes, a summer of training that coincided with Teravainen’s breakout season.
Patience is a virtue, especially with prospects. Expectations based on draft positioning often lead people to ignore the signs of progress, especially when hindsight is used to compare players even two years after the draft. Development is a key issue for the Canadiens, and Kotkaniemi just needs time to add strength and work on his skating.
The legendary Scotty Bowman, the winner of nine Stanley Cups as a head coach and five more as a member of an NHL front office, has seen and coached many Hall of Fame centers. He has also seen Kotkaniemi and holds him in high esteem, comparing his style of play to the great Jean Béliveau:
I saw him (Béliveau) play in Victoriaville when he was 16 and he knew how to play at that time. He was a big, tall, gangly player. I was about two years younger and I used to watch all the juniors. This kid (Kotkaniemi) has a special type of ability to read the play. The Finnish program, they develop players both ways. He’s really good and that’s why they play him because he’s good defensively and he’s going to get better offensively when he gets stronger,Scotty Bowman (from ‘Canadiens Game Day: Scotty Bowman impressed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi,’ Montreal Gazette, 02/17/2019).
Let’s remember, Kotkaniemi is still a teenager and won’t be 20 years old until July. His sophomore season was not an easy one, facing adjustments in Julien’s game plan, rising fan expectations as well as multiple injuries. These obstacles will provide the basis for improvement and, hopefully, a desire to prove his detractors wrong.
To consider this young man a draft bust is premature, because of his age, his skills and his clear desire to improve. Patience is key and given some time, Kotkaniemi will become a quality NHL center.