With the Montreal Canadiens losing Phil Danault to the Los Angeles Kings in free agency, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has the most to gain. Unless the Canadiens trade for a top-two center, Kotkaniemi should be on the 2nd line, which means more minutes and better linemates than the carousel he had to ride last season. This should be where the Canadiens can see if their prized third overall pick in the 2018 draft will consistently be what they hoped.
A Busy Offseason
When the Canadiens’ Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final came to an end, the offseason began, and it has been nonstop. Captain Shea Weber will miss the next season, Danault, Corey Perry, and John Merrill all signed with other teams, and Tomas Tatar and Eric Staal seem unlikely to return. That’s a lot of pieces moving out of the lineup, all before throwing Paul Byron’s hip surgery into the equation – he should return late December – and you have lost almost two entire lines.
The Canadiens did add some pieces, having signed free agents Mike Hoffman, David Savard, Mathieu Perrault, and Cedric Paquette. The biggest losses and hardest players to replace will be Weber and Danault; Weber’s two-way game and Danault’s ability to shut down top players are both nearly irreplaceable. Savard was brought in to replace Weber’s defensive capabilities, and you can argue Hoffman will replace Weber’s shot on the power play. As for Danault, there hasn’t been anyone brought in specifically to replace him, and this is where Kotkaniemi and the other young centers need to step up.
Kotkaniemi Needs to Find Consistency
The biggest issue with Kotkaniemi right now is his dependability and endurance. He was off to a great rookie campaign in 2018-19 until around the last 20 games of the season when it seemed he hit a brick wall. Mind you, he did play 79 games, the most he ever played in a season at any level, and at 18 he was still learning the speed of the game at the NHL level. His sophomore season was pretty much a wash because of injuries, and last season was similar to his rookie campaign, which was very inconsistent.
With Danault gone and, for now, no replacement as the number two center, Kotkaniemi is the choice by default. This would be a major step forward in his development and a great chance for him to prove he can do the job. However, he will need to be a lot more reliable and play a better two-way game. He is defensively pretty, but his offensive game still needs work; despite showing flashes of his potential he still has difficulty with decision-making in the offensive zone.
Kotkaniemi Needs Work in Offseason to Get Better
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin stated in his end-of-season presser that he would like to see Kotkaniemi play a more north-south game and work on his lower body. Kotkaniemi also stated he needs to work on his skating and will do so in the offseason. During the COVID break last season, he came back stronger than ever in the bubble and skated noticeably better this season. He is a hard worker and will do what it takes to improve.
With both the organization and Kotkaniemi striving for the same goal, there is no reason why he can’t reach it. The number two center spot is his to lose, and going into his fourth year in the NHL at only 21, he should know what’s at stake. The organization is counting on him to take that extra step in his development, and it’s all in his control – the potential is there. He needs to work on his conditioning to improve his endurance, and hopefully, this will resolve his inconsistencies.
Canadiens Have Depth at Wing
The Canadiens will start the season with lots of depth on the wing, especially with Jonathan Drouin returning. One of the issues that might have handcuffed Kotkaniemi last season was the revolving door of wingers that he played with. As the third-line center, he was the one who had his linemates swapped more than any other center last season. Nick Suzuki and Danault had their lines pretty well set from the start of the year, but Kotkaniemi ended up with a mixed bag of wingers. He played on 11 different line combinations, either at center or wing. 84.3 minutes was the most time with the same line combination and Tyler Toffoli was the most consistent winger, the two playing 171.3 minutes together.
This season, the Canadiens have a boatload of capable top-nine wingers. With the signing of Hoffman, the return of Drouin, and last year’s returning wingers, it would be almost impossible for Kotkaniemi not to play with a quality set. Unless a trade happens, he should secure the second-line center role and will have regular linemates. If this ends up being the case, there should no longer be excuses for a bad season or one that lacks progression for Kotkaniemi, and it will be all on him and his abilities.
At 21, no one expects Kotkaniemi to become a sudden superstar, but the current situation at the center position gives him all the tools to show that he will at least become a top center in Montreal before long. Next season is the one he needs to use as his chance to prove doubters wrong.
Trege Wilson has been a freelance content writer for the past four years and with the THW for the past year. He is the co-host of the popular Montreal Canadiens podcast Habs Unfiltered on IHeartRadio.com.Trege is very passionate about all things Canadiens and loves to provide his readers with great quality news, rumours and opinions on the Montreal Canadiens. Trege has also been featured on JblamSports and JDFSports Podcasts; for interviews and guest appearances, you can contact him at any of his social media accounts listed under his photo in such articles as this one.