When the Montreal Canadiens selected Jesperi Kotkaniemi third overall in June, most people - if not all - expected him to be getting ready for the 2019 World Junior Hockey Championships in British Columbia starting on Boxing Day.
Instead, as the Canadiens prepare to face the Nashville Predators on the night of the tournament’s gold and bronze medal games, Kotkaniemi will be firmly entrenched in the Canadiens’ middle six.
Part of the shake up of the Montreal forward lines prior to their game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night was that Kotkaniemi would play with Tomas Tatar and Andrew Shaw. That seemed like a clear message that Kotkaniemi would be given more responsibility. Claude Julien followed that up by playing Kotkaniemi over 12 minutes at even strength, just 15 seconds less than Phillip Danault.
The progression Kotkaniemi has shown this year has been remarkable. He opened 2018 as a first-round prospect and vaulted into the top five prospects with a solid Liiga season and a good performance at the World Under-18 Championship. Then, the Canadiens selected him in the top three of the draft, playing what many felt (even those who liked the pick) was the long game.
His first appearance at development camp, he didn’t stand out. His first game at rookie camp, he struggled but told me and other members of the media that he’d get better every day. In training camp, he looked to be improving, but found another gear when he replaced Max Domi, out with a suspension.
When the regular season started, he steadily improved and while he wasn’t always picking up points, he was not costing the team very much. He just continued to improve and now we’re at a point where Marc Bergevin admitted he’s too important to the NHL team to get a chance to represent his country.
He’s cleared every bar that was in front of him, and has done so despite all of this happening as he was turning 18 years old. Of the 36 games Kotkaniemi has played, he was negative in possession (more shots attempts against than for at five-on-five) in only seven of them.
Of the seven forwards who have played every game this season, Kotkaniemi is last in total ice time at five-on-five. But it wouldn’t shock me to see him move up on that list. Thursday was the first step, and I’ve learned to no longer underestimate him.