It was just prior to training camp ago ex-General Manager Marc Bergevin admitted he made a mistake with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, that another year in Finland might have been better for his development. Fast-forward to the holidays and the Montreal Canadiens risk doing the same thing to defenseman Mattias Norlinder.
Norlinder vs. Kotkaniemi
To be fair, Norlinder wasn’t just drafted, like ex-Hab Kotkaniemi was back right before his rookie year in 2018-19. Norlinder was actually drafted in 2019, and he’s 21. However, the plan had been for Norlinder to return to Sweden out of training camp if he didn’t make the team.
Norlinder technically didn’t, getting injured during training camp instead. He then got assigned to the Laval Rocket for conditioning after recovering. He got called up with Ryan Poehling mid-November, getting in his first game on Nov. 18 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. In six Canadiens games, Norlinder tallied a single assist, eventually getting sent back down soon after the Canadiens picked up defenseman Kale Clague off waivers.
By that point in time, the rules had changed. The Canadiens no longer had to return Norlinder to Frolunda in Sweden. They could technically keep him in the American Hockey League, as reported by TVA’s Nicolas Cloutier.
The plan at this point is to play Norlinder for three games with the Rocket before reassessing the situation. He’s played two. The third is set for this Sunday against the Hershey Bears.
Norlinder Wants to Go Back to Sweden
The Canadiens have said they will listen to Norlinder’s opinion before taking action, with the defenseman having been quoted as saying in a Swedish newspaper that he would prefer to go back to Sweden. The official party line from Norlinder’s camp is the quote was taken out of context and that he’s prepared to play wherever. Take it all with a grain of salt. It’s of no matter, anyway. The real question is, where is best for him and his development?
Prior to the change in rules, that probably would have been Sweden for another season. After all, with the Canadiens, Norlinder was only being played 12:18 (the lowest amount among Habs defensemen) with just 19 seconds of power-play ice time per game. Now that he can stay the AHL, where he’s gaining more confidence, earning points in his first two games back, it’s not as clear.
Sure, Norlinder’s opinion matters, to a certain extent. However, the Canadiens aren’t necessarily in the business of bending to the whims of their players, least of all their prospects, who have yet to prove anything. If it’s determined Norlinder would be better off getting used to the North American game playing in Laval, it’s hardly a bad option. It wouldn’t necessarily be a mistake in this case, even with Frolunda being a powerhouse, first-place team, with whom Norlinder would likely get top-two-pairing ice time and a chance to play with the likes of Detroit Red Wings blue-chipper Simon Edvinsson.
It should be pointed out revisionist history is fairly damning to the Canadiens. In retrospect, sure they could have sent Kotkaniemi back to Finland his rookie season. However, what often gets left out of that narrative is the team to which he would have been returned, Assat Pori, placed last in the league in a tire fire of a season. They were 20 points worse off in the standings than the second-to-last-place team. In other words, it wouldn’t necessarily have been sunshine and lollipops, especially with Kotkaniemi’s father, Mikael, the head coach of the team, getting fired early on that campaign.
Kotkaniemi’s rookie season with the Canadiens actually went fairly well, before he hit a wall late in the season. Even so, his 34 points as an 18-year-old challenged Mario Tremblay’s record of 39. Still, it would be naïve to believe the Canadiens can’t possibly screw this up.
Canadiens Must Learn from Mistakes
This is a team that effectively fed top-goalie-prospect Cayden Primeau to the lions a few weeks ago. They also played top-prospect (period) Cole Caufield a season-low 11:06, sent him down to the AHL, called him up, and eventually played him a new-season-low 10:46. Hell, they were doing the same to Norlinder, before wisely sending him down. So, the Canadiens definitely aren’t the authority on prospect development, with owner Geoff Molson calling out the organization’s shortcomings in that regard when he dismissed Bergevin and Trevor Timmins. But that they’re now gone is a sign of change.
There are even signs things are getting better. For example, Caufield was just played over 16 minutes in two of the last four games. And Norlinder getting sent down to get regular minutes in the AHL is hardly the death knell to his career some may make it out to be. Everything has the potential to work out right now. Keep that in mind.
Norlinder is key to the Canadiens’ future as a legitimate offensively capable defenseman on a blue line currently being led in goals by Ben Chiarot and points by Chris Wideman. Needless to say, things are in bad shape and not just because both are pending unrestricted free agents. The point is, the Canadiens need to get this one right, but there’s good reason to believe they will.
If the Canadiens send Norlinder back to Sweden, they’ll be granting him his wish for all intents and purposes. If they keep him in the AHL, it won’t be due to malicious intent. It will be because they value him and want to keep a closer eye on his development. The most important thing is he’s not with the similar tire fire that is the Canadiens anymore… not yet anyway. Whenever that situation changes, there’s every reason to believe it will because it’s time and it’s for the best.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.