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Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s season has begun with preparation for under-20 competition

The centre helped bring home the victory for the Finland U20 squad on Monday. We break down his top highlights.

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

On Monday, the Finnish and Czech Republic U20 teams met at the Vierumäki Sports Institute in the south of Finland to prepare for the U20 season. While Jesse Ylönen wasn’t part of the team this time, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was centring the first line with Kaapo Kakko and Linus Nyman during Monday’s game. Kotkaniemi was also the quarterback on the Finnish first power-play unit, and just four minutes in, he got the chance to show his playmaking ability.

Above you’ll see that the accurate pass goes straight through the box and causes problems for the Czechs. However, it really should have been a better shot coming from the Finnish forward.

In the third period, when Kotkaniemi’s passes started to get cut off, he took off from the same position toward the goal himself and tried to beat the goalkeeper, but had no luck. He did manage to create a lot of empty space during the first period thanks to those passes.

Kotkaniemi had a presence all over the ice and he showed great playmaking ability against his peers. More often than not he created chances for his teammates. In the blink of an eye, he got the puck along the boards and faked a give-and-go to get alone with the goalkeeper, but his shot was wide as he looked for the mesh inside the far post.

There is no hiding the hockey IQ that Kotkaniemi possesses, and it was obvious to everyone who was watching that he was a step ahead most times. He would steal the puck and set up teammates for chances more or less out of nothing, all while remaining calm and collected, not seeming to stress even when the pressure was on. The Czechs tried to play physical quite a few times, and while Kotkaniemi took some hits early on, he wasn’t afraid to deliver a few big ones when he got the chance.

Kotkaniemi controlled the play even with players hanging onto him, partly thanks to his big reach and partly due to his hockey IQ. When a defender came up on him, the puck was already on its way to a new address.

The Canadiens prospect finished with an assist in Finland’s 8-3 victory, and it was clear that he stood out among his peers.

Observations from the game:

  • Kotkaniemi’s anticipation and vision helps him to get in the right position and speaks volumes about his hockey IQ.
  • He’s a spider — collecting pucks and delivering them to another spot on the ice with accuracy and pace.
  • While his offensive output wasn’t much this game, there’s no doubt it will come.
  • He uses his body not only to throw checks around, but in smart ways by blocking passing lanes or throwing the forechecker off with a screen to protect his teammates who control the puck. He isn’t afraid to use his body no matter where he is on the ice, as exemplified in the hit shown above.
  • When it comes to his defensive game, it’s very good. He’s aware, he looks around to make sure he won’t be caught out of position, and he takes responsibility. However, and I am nitpicking here, he takes that responsibility seriously and in some ways ends up too far away from the goal. I don’t think I saw him in open play near the ‘home-plate area,’ but this will come in due time.
  • His skating technique will most likely have to improve. His first three strides are good but can be improved with added muscle. He creates separation and it will be interesting to see if he can do it against professionals no matter where he plays next season. He will never be contesting Connor McDavid when it comes to skating, but a little bit more use of his technique will be needed, especially if he can bring more deception to it and really create problems for the defenders.

At this level he was outstanding and it’s clear that Kotkaniemi is the clearest shining prospect for the Canadiens at the moment.