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Joel Armia performed well in 2018-19 as Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s right-hand man

The Finns had positive numbers together in the first year on the Canadiens roster for both players.

NHLI via Getty Images

The Winnipeg Jets were looking to dump a large contract before the free agency period last summer, hoping to free up some cap space for free agency. With plenty of financial wiggle room, Marc Bergevin took on the final year of Steve Mason’s contract, getting Joel Armia and a couple of draft picks for his troubles.

Armia had a very good pre-season with the Montreal Canadiens, making the opening-night roster after impressing with his complete game in the tune-up contests. His performance likely helped give the coaching staff the confidence to go with Jesperi Kotkaniemi at the start of the year, knowing that Armia could support the freshman defensively as he found his legs as a centre.

Through the first month of the season, the two Pori natives took to the ice together every night. When Kotkaniemi netted his first NHL goal on November 1, it was directly from a zone entry and setup from Armia.

Not long after that milestone marker, Armia was forced to miss two months with a knee injury, but was placed right back beside Kotkaniemi when he returned in early January.

Given that he spent the majority of his year with the rookie, Armia’s season can perhaps best be evaluated by seeing how he impacted Kotkaniemi’s play.

Armia-Kotkaniemi With or Without You (WoWY) stats

Player(s) TOI CF% SF% SCF% GF%
Player(s) TOI CF% SF% SCF% GF%
Armia-Kotkaniemi 435:19 56.3 57.2 52.7 59.3
Kotkaniemi w/o Armia 192:28 54.5 51.0 54.1 50.0
Armia w/o Kotkaniemi 210:58 47.0 44.8 48.4 33.3
TOI: time on ice (w/o numbers are from games in which both players were in the lineup); CF%: Corsi-for percentage; SF%: shots-for percentage; SCF%: scoring-chances-for pergcentage; GF%: goals-for percentage 5v5 statistics via Natural Stat Trick

The numbers show a mutual relationship between the two, with their possession and scoring-chance metrics better together than when they were apart. The partnership appears to have benefited Armia more. The elder Finn did spend some of that time away from Kotkaniemi on the fourth line, though his overall zonal deployment was still skewed significantly toward the offensive side.

Perhaps not surprisingly for a player with a career high of 29 points, the actual conversion of those strong numbers into offensive production wasn’t at the same level. Kotkaniemi had many setups throughout the year that were just a small amount of execution from resulting in goals. Armia was able to set Kotkaniemi up for just two five-on-five goals in their 435 minutes together, while Kotkaniemi had the primary assist on three of Armia’s seven goals at full strength. The 2018 third overall pick actually helped out on four of Paul Byron’s goals, while those two were partnered for 150 minutes less.

HockeyViz

The Canadiens were getting shots in Armia’s time on the ice, but few of those attempts on goal came from him. His entire right side of the ice was a cold one in his minutes, with pucks typically being put on goal from farther out.

In the time Kotkaniemi was away from Armia, his offensive game was opened up much more. The team was getting the puck to dangerous areas, and doing so with regularity.

HockeyViz

Armia was a helpful linemate overall for Kotkaniemi in his rookie year. The numbers show the relationship had positive effects. Without Armia, who knows if Kotkaniemi would have been trusted beyond nine NHL games, or even given his first one on October 3? For that reason, his role in 2018-19 can be regarded as providing the training wheels for an 18-year-old making his debut.

With the steps Kotkaniemi took over the past calendar year, learning what he needs to work on and having a full summer to do it, he won’t need that hand-holding in his second year. While Armia has plenty to offer, it’s safe to say his place shouldn’t be alongside the most skilled centre on the team next season.