It’s been a roller coaster ride for Jesperi Kotkaniemi this season; it started with high hopes, but poor play, loss of confidence, and then being sent to Laval Rocket cast a cloud over it. He started getting his game back and working hard to improve with coach Joel Bouchard and becoming a point-per-game player in Laval, before suffering a serious spleen injury that ended his season… or so we thought.
With the Canadiens being the last team to make the play-ins, Kotkaniemi now has a chance to prove himself once again, and could be a big factor in the Habs beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the play-in round.
Kotkaniemi had a pretty good rookie campaign last season, scoring 34 points as an 18-year-old. Although he dropped off a bit in the last few weeks of the season, it was an overall successful one, as he got regular third-line minutes and didn’t look out of place.
Naturally going into this season, fans, management, and even Kotkaniemi himself were expecting a better season, or at least an improvement upon last season. He had a good preseason with no real indication that anything was different from the previous season, but he had only 3 points in his first 12 games. After 36 games and only 8 points, Kotkaniemi was sent to the Rocket to work on his game.
Life in Laval
When Kotkaniemi was sent to Laval, many fans thought he could be a bust and that Marc Bergevin made a huge mistake by drafting him, But management and the coaching staff in both Montreal and Laval had confidence in him. Rocket coach Joel Bouchard could see the talent that Kotkaniemi has, but also could see what he needs to work on.
“It’s the overall game that we’re (trying) to get with him over here and (the 200-foot one). So you know what? When a guy goes to the NHL, he’s got a limited role, he’s playing with NHL players that can cover up for him and there’s more on the frame when he gets over here — now he becomes the guy — so it’s (up to) him to lead the way with his play and, to me, he’s been doing his best, and then sometimes his best isn’t good enough.”Joel Bouchard on Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s game – Sportsnet
He was paired up with another Canadiens player who has seen his ups and downs in the organization, Charles Hudon. While playing center with Hudon, Kotkaniemi amassed 13 points in 13 games, while working hard on his 200-foot game. Life was looking good in Laval until an awkward fall after a hit and things changed once again for Kotkaniemi.
In his 13th game with the Rocket, playing in Cleveland, Kotkaniemi took a hit along the boards and needed to spend the night in the hospital. He ended up with a spleen injury but wouldn’t require surgery.
With the recovery period unknown, the Canadiens shut Kotkaniemi down for the season, and when the season was paused due to COVID-19, he flew back home to Finland to recover. This would end up being very beneficial for him.
Recovery and Conditioning
While in Finland, Kotkaniemi took the initiative to work on his skating and lower-body strength. He hired Finnish speed skaters Janne Hanninen and Ramo Summanen to help him improve his skating, which is something the coaching staff felt he need to work on to enhance his game.
Not only has Kotkaniemi worked on his skating, it would seem he worked on his upper body as well. He showed up to the Canadiens’ training camp much bigger and ready to go. It would seem his time in Finland could’ve been the best thing for him this season.
Since he returned to Montreal, Kotkaniemi has done nothing but impress his teammates and coaching staff. He has looked stronger and faster than before his injury. Coach Claude Julien thinks he is skating much better and has put him on a regular shift as the third-line center, between Paul Byron and Arturri Lehkonen.
“He’s skating way better than he did at the beginning of the year. We knew he had a knee surgery and the recovery and everything… he was still a 19-year-old player, he had his ups and downs, he had his challenges. Everybody knew that. But I like what I’m seeing right now, he seems to have a good pace to his game and his skating.”(From ‘Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s improved skating impresses Claude Julien at Habs camp’, Montreal Gazette, 14/7/20)
With the high praise from Julien, and the regular shift on the third line, this should be a big confidence boost for the 19-year-old, and give him another chance to prove he belongs with the Canadiens.
The Difference Maker
With the improved skating and time working with Joel Bouchard, albeit short, Kotkaniemi is determined to improve his overall game and re-establish himself as the Canadiens’ third-line center. This alone could be a huge factor in the series against Pittsburgh. Kotkaniemi is now focused and dedicated to put the season behind him and hit the reset button with this series.
Aligned with Byron and Lehkonen on the third line, Kotkaniemi will not have the pressure of being pitted against Malkin or Crosby. This will give him the freedom to play his game and not worry about mistakes, allowing him to open up and put his talents to work.
With Byron’s speed and Lehkonen’s defensive capabilities, the Canadiens’ third line led by Kotkaniemi could be the difference-maker in the series. Kotkaniemi’s improved skating and great shot will help turn this line into a two-way juggernaut that could help make him the game-changer for the series.
Trege Wilson lives in Nova Scotia and is a member of the RCN. He is a life long Habs fan and is creator and co-host of the popular Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered.