It’s been an up and down start to the young career of Montreal Canadiens forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi. It all started in Dallas at the 2017 Draft. Montreal had the third-overall pick after an abysmal season that saw them go 29-49-13, and they opted to take the 6-foot-2 center iceman in their quest to find a number-one center. Many were a bit puzzled by the pick, given that names like Brady Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes, and Filip Zadina were all still on the board, but general manager Marc Bergevin opted to draft for position.
Fast forward two years and the Canadiens still don’t know what they have in Kotkaniemi. He had an impressive rookie season as an 18-year-old, scoring 11 goals and adding 23 assists for 34 points in 79 games. It took the Finn some time to get used to the speed and physicality of the NHL, but all in all he had a promising rookie campaign. Which is why this season, expectations were high for him, and he has failed to fulfill that promise early on. Nick Suzuki has emerged as the must-watch young player in Montreal this year, taking Kotkaniemi’s spot.
His offensive numbers have suffered this year, as he’s recorded just five points in 22 games before being concussed on a nasty hit from Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov. His faceoff percentage is also not good, sitting at a 43.7% success rate. Those numbers simply aren’t good enough for a third-overall pick in a draft that saw lots of talent available in that spot. So, what does Kotkaniemi need to do in order to get back on track?
Never known for his speed to begin with, Kotkaniemi is not a great skater. His hockey IQ and puck skills are often enough to cover for this part of his game, but when those skills aren’t working, he can look very slow and disengaged in the game.
It’s been reported that Kotkaniemi put on about 10 pounds of muscle over the summer in an effort to get stronger on the puck and be harder to play against. (From: ‘Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi keeps smile, gains 10 pounds over summer,’ Montreal Gazette, 09/13/2019). This may have had an adverse effect, seeing as he looks visibly slow on the ice, and he’s still getting beaten for pucks in one-on-one battles. Gaining weight as a 19-year-old is not uncommon, as he’s still growing into his adult body. But this change has had an adverse effect on his on-ice performance.
The NHL has never been faster, and if you’re a step or two slow, it’s visibly noticeable, and many onlookers can see this with Kotkaniemi. It’s not as if he’s playing too much and it’s slowing him down, seeing as he plays less than 15 minutes per game. But for Kotkaniemi to grow as a player and become the number-one center Montreal drafted him to be, he needs to find a way to be quicker, whether it be tweaking his technique or shedding weight.
A Trip to the American Hockey League?
This is a debate that could anger some people, and while I’m aware of this, I firmly believe it could benefit this player currently going through a sophomore slump at the NHL level. Laval Rocket head coach Joel Bouchard has a reputation of building a winning culture and has brought that to the team this season. Given they’ve lost players so frequently to call-ups this season (Riley Barber, Charles Hudon, Otto Leskinen, Ryan Poehling, to name a few), he’s managed to stay in sixth place in the conference going 15-12-4.
Simply put, it’s a good environment for a young player to grow, and Kotkaniemi is only 19. He would instantly be given top-line minutes, power play time, and in doing so would learn what it takes to be a number-one center. Remember, this is a player who is technically still eligible to play at this year’s World Junior Championship.
I think that when he does come back from his concussion, he will be given the chance to resume his NHL responsibilities, which includes anchoring the third line. But if he continues to struggle with the pace of the game and he isn’t producing offensively, a trip to Laval could be in his future. If this is the case, the organization should make it abundantly clear to him that it’s not a demotion, its simply part of his on-going development. After all, Victor Mete was sent down to Laval briefly last season, and it seemed to do wonders for his game and overall confidence.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but you must wonder whether Bergevin would ever admit that he made the wrong pick at third overall in 2017. It’s still something that’s too early to tell, but it has to be difficult watching the advanced development of Tkachuk and Hughes. These are two players who look to be can’t-miss picks, and their young careers are already evidence of that. Imagine a line in Montreal of Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher and Tkachuk? Tantalizing yes, but some players simply take longer to gain traction in the NHL, and Kotkaniemi could be one of those players. It’s not easy waiting for a third-overall pick to blossom, but unfortunately Montreal must play the game.