Canadiens Will Eventually See the Kotkaniemi They Drafted

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has had a cyclical start to his NHL career for the Montreal Canadiens. The third overall selection in 2018 made the team from his first training camp, and although he had a pretty solid rookie campaign, the rest of his career has been lukewarm at best. He is in his third season with the Canadiens, but still has a bright future.

Kotkaniemi Has Great Start to Career

When Kotkaniemi was drafted, no one thought he would be in the Canadiens starting lineup for the 2018-19 season. A lot of the talk was that he would stay another year in Finland, playing with Porin Assat in the Finnish Liga. That fall, he showed up for training camp and played excellent hockey, winning a spot on the team and starting his Canadiens career playing third-line center.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Montreal Canadiens (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He had a slow start to the season, scoring only four points and no goals in his first 11 games, but that was to be expected for a European playing for the first time on North American ice — ice size is bigger in European leagues. He then had eight points in his next 14 games in November, including three goals. Through February, he had steady production and even saw a bump in his ice time. By the time March rolled around, Kotkaniemi had hit a wall and only scored three points — all assists — in his final 15 games. He finished the season with a respectable 34 points in 79 games, with 11 goals.

Injuries and a Trip to Laval

The next season was a complete disaster for the sophomore, not only on the ice but also off of it. Before the season even started, Kotkaniemi had minor knee surgery in the summer but was ready for the Canadiens training camp in the fall. Whether it was the knee injury or sophomore slump, Kotkaneimi could not get anything going in the 2019-20 season. He had only seven points – five goals – in his first 25 games before suffering a concussion in early December.

Kotkaniemi returned from his concussion to play 11 games in January, but his production was even worse, scoring only one point. Canadiens management decided enough was enough and sent him to the Laval Rocket to see if he could get his game back. Kotkaniemi saw a resurgence in his play with the Rocket – paired with Charles Hudon, Kotkaniemi produced at a point per game pace (13 points in 13 games) before sustaining another injury. He suffered a spleen injury after a hit in a game against Cleveland, ending what started as a hopeful season, and leaving him with only eight points in 36 games with the Canadiens.

Resurgence in the Bubble

While Kotkaniemi was back in his hometown in Finland recovering from his spleen injury, the NHL paused in March due to COVID-19. The NHL restarted the season on Aug. 1 in a 24-team tournament, putting the 24th-place Canadiens in the postseason. By this time, Kotkaniemi was fully healed and ready to get back into action.

Related: Habs’ Kotkaniemi Is Not a Bust

With the Canadiens trading away most of their depth at the trade deadline, thinking they would be missing the playoffs, Kotkaniemi’s playing time was not in question come the postseason. He was slotted into his usual third-line center position, and he did not disappoint – he came out flying, scoring in the first two games against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the play-in round, helping the Canadiens win the series, 3-1. He was even better in the Philadelphia Flyers series in the first round of the playoffs, scoring two goals and providing a good two-way game through the series in which the Canadiens lost, 4-2.

Bergevin Trusts His Young Centers

With the exceptional play of Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki in the bubble, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin didn’t think it was necessary to get a top center this past offseason. As the 2020-21 season started, both players were playing well at both ends of the ice, but as the season wore on, they both had their slumps; Suzuki worked out of his and went on to have an incredible sophomore season, matching his rookie season point total, with 41 in 15 fewer games.

Nick Suzuki Montreal Canadiens
Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Kotkaniemi did not get out of his slump, and he had a roller-coaster season, finishing with only 4 points in his last 24 games. Kotkaniemi’s inconsistency led to Bergevin acquiring Eric Staal near the trade deadline. Staal wasn’t impressive in his 21 games with the Canadiens, but the Habs other young center, Jake Evans, was. Evans used his speed and great defensive play to keep himself in the lineup, and even though he finished the season with only 13 points in 47 games, he only had seven fewer points than Kotkaniemi, who had 20 in 56 games.

Playoff Controversy and the Future

To start the 2020-21 playoffs, the Canadiens had two struggling centers, Staal and Kotkaniemi. Both played poorly, but Kotkaniemi was skating better and playing better defensively than Staal. The question was who would Dominique Ducharme plan to start the playoffs: the veteran who seemed to be the favoured in the regular season, or the 20-year-old trying to find his game? Ducharme went with the veteran, and it seemed to work out as Staal played his best game yet as a Canadien and assisted on the opening goal.

All is not lost with Kotkaniemi this season; he has played a solid game away from the puck through his slumps and inconsistencies. It doesn’t help that he had multiple partners at the wing and could never get consistent linemates. When Kotkaniemi is on, he shows the signs that convinced the Canadiens to draft him – he has a great hockey IQ, improved his skating and faceoffs, and has a hell of a shot. The biggest issue he has is his decision making; he tends to pass too much and tends to shoot at the wrong time, but he is only 20 and still has a lot of time to improve and work on that part of his game – if he were 23, then I would worry.

Kotkaniemi did break into the lineup for Game 2 of the playoffs and scored the Canadiens’ only goal, proving to be one of the better players on the ice. If this game shows anything, we know we have a young player who can elevate his game when it counts.

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