Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi Comes As Advertised

At face value, Montreal Canadiens Jesperi Kotkaniemi is having a very good rookie season. It’s only when you start to look at it from the proper perspective that it becomes clear just how valuable he’ll be to this franchise in the years to come. And sooner rather than later.

Kotkaniemi Keeps Scoring

With his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers, Kotkaniemi hit the 30-point plateau. It’s no small feat, especially when it brings him within three of Rasmus Dahlin (33) for second place among rookies this season.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares
Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Toronto Maple Leafs John Tavares – (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

There’s obviously no catching Vancouver Canucks superstar Elias Pettersson (54) who’s proven himself to be in another stratosphere in terms of scoring ability. Nevertheless, even if Pettersson is favorably filling in the footsteps of Pavel Bure, Kotkaniemi is already being compared to an all-time Canadiens great in Jean Beliveau. By Scotty Bowman of all people.

It’s undeniably premature to start heaping all this praise on a guy who wasn’t even 18 when he drafted last June. Just the same, there’s good reason to be optimistic about Kotkaniemi’s development for that very reason.

Kotkaniemi vs. Hudon

It’s easy to look at Charles Hudon as a cautionary tale. After all, the much-maligned winger who’s a regular healthy scratch these days, is coming off his own 30-point rookie season. Of course, Hudon scored his 30 points in 11 more games and with five more years in age and development under his belt at the time.

Montreal Canadiens forward Charles Hudon
Montreal Canadiens forward Charles Hudon – (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

Granted, much of that development came under the flawed-by-all-accounts guidance of Sylvain Lefebvre. He had served as head coach of the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate prior to making way for Joel Bouchard. However, the point isn’t that Hudon admirably performed at Kotkaniemi’s level in spite of Lefebvre. It’s that Kotkaniemi is performing at the same level as the league’s top rookies (Pettersson excluded) at his age, in spite of a lack of exposure to the North American game at lower levels. He made the jump straight to the NHL… and successfully.

Kotkaniemi Can Make History

In fact, by those standards, Kotkaniemi is having a historically good rookie season with the Habs. He already ranks at No. 47 among rookies in franchise history (since 1917-18, the first NHL season) in terms of points, with a realistic opportunity to move up into the top 25 if he keeps scoring at this pace. He would only need to pass Mario Tremblay’s 39 in 1984-85 to have the highest-scoring rookie season as an 18-year-old in team history.

Granted, Alex Galchenyuk scored at a higher clip during his 18-year-old season in 2012-13, when he notched 27 points in 48 games. However, he actually scored most of those as a 19-year-old. Kotkaniemi won’t have his next birthday until the summer.

Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk
Ex-Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s all incredibly eye-opening and yet not at the same time, if you watch Kotkaniemi play. That innocent smile of his that he shows off after scoring seems to belie maturity beyond his years. Needless to say, the Habs made the right decision keeping Kotkaniemi, and, more importantly, keeping him at center.

It’s almost as important as goaltending as a position. So, it should be no surprise that Ken Dryden arguably had the greatest rookie season in team history as a result of his accomplishments, albeit well into his twenties.

Admittedly, Kotkaniemi may not be at risk of usurping him here. Based on the role of No. 1 center most see him filling (and with aplomb), he could be well on his way to securing his legacy among the franchise’s biggest names, though. He’s technically already have, hinting at a future that’s nearly as bright as his smile.