In 2018, the Montreal Canadiens were given the third overall pick in the NHL Draft, their highest pick since 2012 when the team selected offensive forward Alex Galchenyuk with the same pick.
Last year’s draft featured a strong pool of prospects including Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Filip Zadina, Quinn Hughes and Barrett Hayton. One of the most promising of these prospects is Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had an impressive rookie season with the Canadiens.
Final Pre-Draft Rankings
When the time came to announce the team’s pick, General Manager Marc Bergevin called on Director of Amateur Scouting Shane Churla to announce Kotkaniemi of Ässät in the Finnish Elite League.
Many Habs fans were shocked and disappointed as few had heard of the young center. All the hype was focused on players like Dahlin, Zadina, Tkachuk and Svechnikov, all strong players at the World Junior Championships and were consistently rated in the Top 5 leading up to the draft.
Little did they know, Kotkaniemi is a force to be reckoned with. In his last ranking before the draft, TSN’s Bob McKenzie ranked Kotkaniemi fifth among eligible players, and NHL Central Scouting ranked him sixth among players in Europe.
Keep in mind, the Central Scouting ranking came out before the World Under 18 Championship, where Kotkaniemi was a standout player and a major reason Finland took home the gold medal.
By taking Kotkaniemi, the Habs addressed their biggest weakness. The team lacks depth, size and talent at the center position. To be successful in the NHL, strength down middle is a necessity. At 6-foot-2 and 187 lbs, Kotkaniemi has the size to make a huge impact, and he has the skills to match.
Kotkaniemi’s 2018-19 NHL Season
After the draft, many analysts were quick to say that Kotkaniemi was not NHL-ready and would need to play another year or two in Finland or any other league besides the NHL.
Yet despite the criticism, Kotkaniemi gave Habs management no choice but to put his name on the opening night roster due to an impressive tryout and the team’s lack of depth. This made history, as Kotkaniemi was the first player born in the 2000s to make the roster on any NHL team.
The rookie center was the youngest player in the NHL this season and he played in 79 of the 82-game schedule.
Kotkaniemi made significant strides throughout the season. He finished with 11 goals and 34 points, which put him ninth in rookie scoring and fourth among players drafted in 2018.
Thirty-four points is not spectacular, but it’s excellent for a player who wasn’t supposed to make the team. Not to mention the pressure of playing in a city like Montreal, where hockey is like a religion.
Offseason Knee Surgery
Two weeks after the season ended, Kotkaniemi underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Fans have nothing to worry about however, as Bergevin told the media that the injury was only minor, and it did not stop Kotkaniemi from playing this past season nor would it delay his offseason training.
Kotkaniemi is said to be staying in Montreal in the meantime to complete his rehabilitation program under the guidance of the Canadiens’ training staff.
Kotkaniemi’s 2019-20: A Look Ahead
After fully recovering from surgery, Kotkaniemi will have all summer to prepare for the upcoming season. Unlike last year, when he had the distraction of the draft and other media obligations, the soon to be sophomore will have plenty of time to work on his strength and skating.
Kotkaniemi will look to build off an impressive rookie campaign and avoid the sophomore slump.
Don’t be surprised if the young center follows in the footsteps of another Finnish-born player, Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche. Like Kotkaniemi, Rantanen’s rookie season was solid but not spectacular. Rantanen tallied 38 points compared to Kotkaniemi’s 34. Rantanen then followed it up with a fantastic 84-point sophomore season and a trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs. With help coming from new players like Ryan Poehling and potential offseason signees, it is possible that Kotkaniemi will pull off Rantanen-like numbers, allowing the Habs to make it to the playoffs in 2019-20.