The Montreal Canadiens are surprising a lot of people this season. They’re playing consistently good-to-great team hockey, they got Shea Weber back from injury, and they have a solid top-nine forward core that they can shuffle with ease.
While Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin have been firmly in the limelight for their outstanding efforts so far, and the trio of Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar continue to be a force, there is one more surprising piece of the team that should garner more attention. That player is 2018 first-round pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who is quietly becoming a quality NHL player right before our eyes.
It’s easy to look at just his basic stat line (three goals and eleven assists in 29 games) and think he’s struggling. Especially if you compare him to the seasons of Elias Pettersson or others. Yet, every time the 18-year-old Finn steps on the ice, he improves. Something he promised he would do after a lackluster debut in the Rookie Showcase this summer. Even without the same mind-blowing point totals, his possession numbers are among the best of his rookie class, and on his own team as well.
However, there is the opportunity for him to be given a larger role, and it’s not because the Canadiens are in desperate need to force him into one, it’s because he’s earned it at this point. Kotkaniemi, much like Danault in front of him, is playing a great game at both ends of the ice, and swapping them might unlock more offensive chances for the young centre. This isn’t a swipe at Danault, who has been as steady as it gets down the middle, but promoting Kotkaniemi could bring Montreal’s offence to another level this season.
Looking at the advanced numbers for the two players shows their similarities on the ice, and they’re both turning in solid seasons thus far.
So far, the primary difference has been that Danault has gotten more ice time and better overall linemates this year. They’re both producing shots at a solid clip and limiting chances against at the same time. Again, the primary difference being that Kotkaniemi is doing so with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen verses Gallagher and Tatar.
Danault is, by all accounts, a very good defensive centre and has proved that in his time with the Canadiens. Kotkaniemi has the ability to develop into a dangerous offensive centre who can play at either end of the ice. Simply swapping the two allows Danault to continue being a primary defensive centre, especially with the talents of Lehkonen and Byron, while Kotkaniemi is placed on a line that can allow more of his offensive game to grow.
The primary concern with many young players is how they can handle the defensive pressures of being an NHL centre, and that’s a valid concern to have if a team is going to promote a rookie to a more prominent role. Yet, Kotkaniemi has assuaged those worries with his play. He’s in the right places and is continually making smart reads.
There’s a noticeable positive trend when Kotkaniemi is on the ice, and it’s that he’s driving play the right way and keeping pucks off his goalies. There’s nothing to truly be lost by giving him a trial run on the top line. With how well Gallagher and Tatar have been playing, the rookie is well insulated and has the chance to start setting up goals for two of the Canadiens most consistent offensive forces.
It’s understandable why the move hasn’t been made already. The Canadiens’ offence is clicking right now and Claude Julien likely doesn’t want to mess with the chemistry of his lineup. The season has its ebbs and flows, however, and if the offence stalls a bit there’s a ready-made solution already.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi was thought to be going back to Finland to start the year, then he kept playing well, and now he’s a key part of the offence. The goal now needs to shift to developing his offensive acumen. His vision is a step above his linemates right now and placing him in a more offensive line could very well do wonders for the rookie forward.
Regardless of his position now, it’s a welcome change to have that dynamic young piece in the middle of the ice. Something that’s been missing in Montreal for awhile now.