In selecting Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall selection of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens have declared their intention to fill the long-standing organizational deficit at the centre position. The selection of Kotkaniemi, a player who may eventually have a higher ceiling, but whose current level of ability is generally not regarded as the third-best in the draft, indicates that Bergevin has a multi-year plan in mind.
Given that Kotkaniemi played this previous Liiga season at wing, it is likely the Finnish prospect will require one additional full season with Ässät at the centre position prior to coming over to North America. This is the most optimistic outcome. It is also highly possible that Kotkaniemi will need two full years — either in the Liiga, the AHL, or a combination of the two — in order to reach a level where he can make an appreciable NHL impact.
For example, Mikko Rantanen spent his draft-plus-one season with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL, became a full-time NHLer in his draft-plus-two season, and only became the bona fide star that he was projected to become in his draft-plus-three season. Likewise, Jesse Puljujarvi has spent both his D+1 and D+2 years alternating between the NHL and AHL, while Miro Heiskanen spent his D+1 year with IFK Helsinki.
The fact that Kotkaniemi will require one or two years of priming is not in any way a knock against the player, his abilities, or the validity of his selection. Kotkaniemi, if nurtured properly, could very well have a higher ceiling than the likes of Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina. However, his absence from the Bell Centre for at least the 2018-19 season puts the Canadiens in a bit of an awkward position.
With his selection, the development trajectory of Kotkaniemi is now central to the Montreal Canadiens’ long-term planning. Any intended window for contention will firmly be designed with the Finnish forward’s projected level of ability at that time in mind. Assuming Kotkaniemi joins the team for the 2019-20 season as a 19-year-old, he will join a team projected to have a forward core consisting of:
- Jonathan Drouin (age 25, under contract for three additional years)
- Phillip Danault (age 27, contract status TBD)
- Max Domi (age 25, pending RFA)
- Brendan Gallagher (age 28, under contract for one additional year)
- Artturi Lehkonen (age 24, contract status TBD)
- Charles Hudon (age 25, contract status TBD)
This represents a considerable accumulation of talent on team-controlled salaries, as well as a potential impending UFA explosion within the subsequent two or three years. As such, the Habs do have another window between 2019-20 and 2020-21 — longer if Gallagher signs a team-friendly UFA contract. Add to this forward corps a 34-year-old Shea Weber, 32-year-old Jeff Petry, and 32-year-old Carey Price, and the Canadiens are well primed to take another shot at the Stanley Cup.
However, there is still the 2018-19 season before the above-mentioned plan can come to fruition. The Canadiens team that will take the ice next season will be in a more gestational state, developing and maturing in order to hopefully make the next step with the arrival of their newly drafted centre.
As such, what should be done with this upcoming campaign? The team has too much talent to realistically tank for Jack Hughes, isn’t quite in a position to really be capable of making a deep playoff run short of Carey Price channeling his former self, and having another mid-to-late first-round draft pick wouldn’t help the team in 2019-20 or 2020-21.
Maybe the answer to that question is: nothing. The 2018-19 season for the Canadiens, from a long-term planning perspective, is playing with house money; a perfect opportunity to let your youngsters (Jacob de la Rose, Nikita Scherbak, Noah Juulsen, and Victor Mete) loose and truly evaluate their capabilities. If the kids perform above expectations, the Habs faithful can enjoy a playoff run. If they fail, the team can add another high draft pick, perhaps adding a player who can make an immediate impact on the team that Kotkaniemi will be joining the following season.