I want Kotkaniemi in the AHL next season. You?— Giancarlo Aimone (@AIMforGC) June 24, 2018
I don’t want to see Jesperi Kotkaniemi in a Laval Rocket uniform in 2018. I’ll be quite alright if I don’t see Kotkaniemi in a Canadiens uniform proper until at least 2022, which is the final year the Canadiens can sign him before his rights expire.
As my EOTP colleague Andrew Zadarnowski pointed out in a fantastic and informative article, the Canadiens could easily bring him under their wings as soon as this coming season because of a sliding entry-level contract and because he only turns 18 this September.
The Canadiens selected their latest talisman at third overall during this past weekend’s NHL Entry Draft, making him the team’s most important centre, no, forward prospect since Alex Galchenyuk was drafted at the same spot six years prior (with all due respect to Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling).
If the Canadiens have learned anything with Galchenyuk, the team must do everything possible to ensure his transition to the National Hockey League is as smooth as possible. If it means letting him play in Ässät under his father for another year, so be it. If it means the team won’t have him in Laval until 2019, sure. Centres don’t grow on trees, so it’s imperative that the Canadiens learn from their mistakes with Galchenyuk and nurture their new prospect as well as they can.
Yes, Galchenyuk and Kotkaniemi’s situations are very different. Galchenyuk didn’t need to adapt to North American play like Kotkaniemi will likely have to. Galchenyuk was also much more ready for the NHL upon being drafted as opposed to Kotkaniemi, and that’s quite alright.
But the expectations were great for Galchenyuk when he was drafted as a centre, and by trading him away to Arizona, it seems as if their efforts to make him their long-time top-centre were in vain. The expectations for Kotkaniemi will rise as well, especially since the team passed on an NHL-ready winger in Filip Zadina, who apparently brings the goals.
Despite whatever reservations you may have about the team’s record of developing players, it should be common sense to know that Kotkaniemi isn’t ready for the bright lights of the Bell Centre, or even Place Bell, just yet. He hasn’t even played a full year at centre in the senior men’s league in Finland, despite showing he can play the position at U18 Worlds, and scouts projecting him as a centre.
Not only will learning all the responsibilities of playing centre back in Finland be more beneficial for his development, it ultimately saves the Canadiens from even thinking of rushing him if he played in the AHL.
That’s not to say that the Canadiens should handle Kotkaniemi with kid gloves at every level and keep him in bubble wrap. If he’s clearly playing at a high level, the team should bring him over to North America and give him minutes. Once Kotkaniemi comes over, the Canadiens need to follow a blueprint similar to that which the Florida Panthers used with a Finnish centre of their own, Aleksander Barkov, who played at centre from his rookie season onward without flip-flopping to the wing.
Let Kotkaniemi play and sometimes fail at centre, and let him do so in environments where he can be afforded the luxury to learn. Ässät, then Laval, then Montreal. There shouldn’t be any real rush for him to be a saviour at centre right away, especially with Evans and Poehling slightly farther along the prospect pipeline.
General Manager Marc Bergevin and the rest of the Canadiens’ brass have drafted a number of centres to stockpile their centre depth at this year’s Draft. Kotkaniemi is obviously the crown jewel of that class, and the team must treasure him as such.