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Jesperi Kotkaniemi: A young player making his mark in the league

Having just turned 19, Kotkaniemi will still be one of the youngest players in the NHL this year.

Chicago Blackhawks v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Jesperi Kotkaniemi had an interesting season for the Montreal Canadiens last year. The forward became the first player born in the year 2000 to play in a regular-season game, and he played in 79 of them, recording 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points.

When the Finn was drafted, quite a few experts were expecting him to play a year or two more in Europe. Yet, his encouraging performance as the rookie camp went on last year put him on course to take a place in the starting lineup. Even then, most were expecting just a nine-game trial to give him a taste of professional hockey in Montreal. As the opening weeks played out, people started realizing that Kotkaniemi wasn’t going anywhere.

All of this was happening for the youngest player in the NHL last year, one also playing a on fairly young team; the Canadiens averaged 27.3 years of age in 2018-19. With a few tweaks made this summer, we could see an even younger roster take on the challenge of getting into the playoffs this time around.

Montreal is one of the youngest team in the league at 27.3 years old for their whole roster
Roster Resource

Kotkaniemi learned quickly how to adapt to the North American professional game. The key to his early success was his play in the defensive zone, which gave him a good base to work from. Unlike most of peers his age, he knew right away how to play a smart game, and that made it easy to trust that the rest of his play would come around.

Some people may not be as overjoyed as others looking at his point total. Montreal hasn’t had a truly offensive centre in years; someone who could break the point-per-game mark on a yearly basis. Those people may look at Kotkaniemi and think he would become a Tomas Plekanec; a good 55- to 65-point centre who can play an excellent defensive game while chipping in offensively every once in a while.

I feel that Kotkaniemi has the time and skills to develop into a well-rounded, offensively gifted centre. Being good in the defensive zone doesn’t stop a player from being able to show creativity and skills on offence.

Age Curve showing peak years for forwards, per overall WAR score.

Looking at the chart above (with data from 2008 to 2016), we can see that Kotkaniemi should be getting better with time. Age 22 to 25 is the plateau for an average skater, and I believe we could stretch it until 27 years old, as the data varies quite a bit. I feel this set of data provides a glimpse into when a player should be peaking. In our case, it shows there are probably still a few years before Kotkaniemi hits his full stride.

A few contributors to the various SB Nation hockey sites have written on the subject of age, peak years, and points, and Hawerchuk’s article is a very interesting starting point. It dates back almost 10 years, but provides a good foundation to think about projecting what could be in store for the Canadiens player. Eric Tulsky also wrote a few articles on this subject which explain how age factors into a player’s progression.

What it all points to is that Kotkaniemi still has a lot of room to grow as a teenager. Through the years, we should be able to see a steady progression. He’s already shown good offensive instincts and playmaking skills, with a good shot that we haven’t seen unleashed very often. The pass-first mentality he had last year likely limited his overall output.

The fact is that not many players start their first year in the NHL at 18 years old. His 0.43 points per game placed him right next to Aleksander Barkov’s rookie pace, while being above Tyler Seguin, Evander Kane, and Ryan O’Reilly’s.

At the end of the day, not many 18-year-olds make the jump right away to the NHL and even fewer spend a full year in the league. It takes talent, and Kotkaniemi has plenty of it. He has plenty of time to hone his craft and develop his offensive side even more as he keeps playing and learning what works and what doesn’t at the NHL level.