It’s an exaggeration to suggest the Montreal Canadiens’ chances against the Pittsburgh Penguins in their play-in round rest on sophomore-forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s shoulders. Only a slight one though.
Price Leads the Way for Canadiens
Obviously, the Canadiens will look primarily to goalie Carey Price to steal a few games. Reports indicated Price was one reason why teams were hesitant to agree to an initial best-of-three series in the first place. After Price, the onus will fall on the Habs’ top players to at the very least cancel out the Penguins’ two-headed-monster made up of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
As unlikely as it may be, that’s the only realistic chance the Habs have to come out of the play-in round alive. Then and only then, will the battle be fought and hopefully won by the Habs’ depth players, which perfectly characterizes the 20-year-old Kotkaniemi at this stage of his young career.
Kotkaniemi Gets a Second Chance
There’s no doubt the Canadiens need Kotkaniemi to bounce back, not just from his at-the-time season-ending spleen injury, but his disappointing sophomore effort overall. That’s putting it lightly as Kotkaniemi scored just eight points (six goals) in 36 games.
Compare and contrast that with his rookie season, if you dare. In 2018-19, Kotkaniemi scored 34 points in 79 games and had a legitimate shot at Mario Tremblay’s 39-point franchise record for 18-year-olds. That was before head coach Claude Julien started making Kotkaniemi a healthy scratch and reducing his ice time, officially to manage his fatigue.
One thing’s for sure: Kotkaniemi won’t be fatigued this time around following a layoff of about four months. Nor should any of the other Habs of course, although rust can always be a factor. Hence the need for training camp, in which Kotkaniemi will take part now that he’s healthy.
Where Kotkaniemi Slots In with Habs
Assuming the recent American Hockey League demotee makes the Canadiens lineup against the Penguins, in which spot should he slot? While with the Habs this past season, Kotkaniemi’s most-common linemates were Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia. Both wingers actually spent some time with Nick Suzuki, who has maybe locked up the No. 2 center slot, behind Phillip Danault on the top line.
Admittedly, that No. 2 spot could just as easily go to Max Domi, though. Domi, A higher-octane second line could potentially see Domi center Suzuki on the right side and Drouin on the left, leaving Kotkaniemi to center Armia and Artturi Lehkonen, who had been the linemates with whom he found the most success in 2018-19.
Regardless, it’s clear Kotkaniemi should be in the running for one of the bottom two center spots. He’d realistically have to battle Ryan Poehling and Jake Evans, but there’s no doubt between the three of them he ranks higher on the Habs’ organizational depth chart in terms of skill, draft pedigree and plans for the future.
The Habs have invested a great deal in Kotkaniemi. Projected to be their No. 1 center of the future when they selected him No. 3 overall in 2018, he may have fallen on hard times from a production standpoint. Nevertheless, Kotkaniemi’s far from a bust. His critics may like to emphasize his latest season over his rookie one, but it’s a flawed recency bias due to the groin injury and concussion he sustained over its course.
Kotkaniemi Is Far from a Lost Cause
Logically speaking, now that Kotkaniemi’s healthy he’s capable of playing to the same level he did during his rookie season (at the very least). All he needs is a fresh slate and, considering he made the Habs out of training in each of his first two seasons, why should this latest training camp be any different? Especially seeing as the playoffs are presenting Kotkaniemi with the perfect opportunity at redemption following a season to forget. The playoffs are the ultimate proving ground, after all.
In that sense, if it’s legitimately up to Kotkaniemi and what he shows the Habs in training camp, he should make the line-up against the Penguins. Objectively speaking, all else being equal, he’s one of their 12 best forwards.
So, assuming the Canadiens want to win against the Penguins, and Habs general manager Marc Bergevin should, Kotkaniemi belongs on the ice. Assuming on the other hand that they have an eye more on the future, why would they risk the development of their prized prospect by hypothetically not playing him at all until next season, whenever that will start?
It’s a no-brainer. The Habs may not win against the Penguins, but they at least have a chance in a best-of-five series, assuming they ice their best lineup. For better or worse, that includes Kotkaniemi.