Early in the first period against the Chicago Blackhawks, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was in position to open the scoring and get a lead for a Montreal Canadiens team in need of a bounce-back performance. Getting the first goal of the game would have been instrumental in boosting the confidence of a struggling group. The team would have come out of the gate, taken control, and responded to the words of some of the team leaders after a difficult loss to the New York Islanders.
But instead of feeding a pass to Kotkaniemi, left wide open on the flank of Corey Crawford, Joel Armia turned in his position in the slot and fired the puck wide of the cage, erasing what would have been one of the Habs’ best scoring chances in the game.
The most frustrating part of that sequence was that Kotkaniemi had earned that scoring chance.
He supported a pressured breakout and sprung Jonathan Drouin for the offensive rush by taking possession of the puck after it bounced off a couple of skates. While spinning away from a check, he connected with his teammate, giving him space to skate wide into the neutral zone.
After entering the offensive zone, Kotkaniemi went up to the opposite faceoff circle and quickly changed direction to lose his coverage and get to the net as soon as he saw Victor Mete preparing a point shot. That shot deflected to Armia, which gave the occasion to the Finnish players to turn and connect with a cross-crease one-timer that would have needed a miraculous save by Crawford.
But that scenario didn’t happen.
Armia is a good defensive forward, and a great puck-protector, but he is not a game-changer offensively. He doesn’t usually have the poise to quickly look over his shoulder with space in the slot to locate a linemate in a better position. He is not that kind of playmaker — or even finisher for that matter.
Kotkaniemi is not yet the player he should become in a few years, but if the above situation between him and Armia were reversed, it is a solid bet that the youngest player in the NHL would have had the poise to find his Finnish counterpart with a tape-to-tape pass, giving him, for half a second, an empty cage to shoot at.
Down 2-0 in an important game for the playoffs, it is not players like Armia, or Jordan Weal (who was a few seconds from a career high in ice time on Saturday), who will make the difference for you. Weal has been a bit of a revelation since coming to Montreal. The productive-Junior-player-turned-journeyman has more skill than the usual depth forward, but it remains that he doesn’t possess the vision or offensive instinct of Kotkaniemi.
Contrary to Weal, Kotkaniemi had limited ice time in the third period due to defensive lapses. On his last couple of shifts, he pinched up the wall as the third man high on the forecheck, trying to take away the puck from a rushing forward in the neutral zone, leading to two-on-ones against.
Those plays were mistakes. He was not the only one at fault in the sequences — the other forwards were late in their forechecking pressure both times — but it was Kotkaniemi’s role to position himself better to intercept the rush.
That being said, by employing a shorter leash on Kotkaniemi against Chicago as a result of those mistakes, the coaching staff also effectively limited their own possible moves with the clock ticking down and the Habs heading toward another loss.
Safe is death. The Habs have been winning with an aggressive mentality. Taking away one of their best offensive weapons in the making in an important situation goes against what they have been trying to accomplish since the start of the season.
The coaching staff has placed Kotkaniemi between Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar at times this year, with some good results. But they seem to have gotten away from this strategy. The team as a whole is slipping away from what made them successful.
In do or die moments, Montreal should be relying on Kotkaniemi, who can see plays others don’t, just like they rely on their best offensive elements by pairing them together to give the team the most offensive potential.
This season was supposed to be a rebuilding year from the start. They chose to bring on their recent 18-year-old draftee and make him part of the team. Even if they fall short of the goals of making the post-season, by using Kotkaniemi in such important situations, they are still filling another much larger objective, which is giving valuable experience to their centre of the future.