We knew fairly early on in the 2017-18 season that the Montreal Canadiens were going to be in a tough battle to make the post-season. Several months in, it became clear that the hopes were best shifted to the 2018 NHL Draft rather than the 2018 NHL Playoffs.
In the end, they finished fourth from the bottom in the standings, which was bad news for the on-ice product, but great news heading into the draft lottery with the fourth-best odds of winning the first overall selection.
The Canadiens didn’t land that top spot, meaning they’d miss out on adding Rasmus Dahlin to the organization. Second overall and presumed number-two selection Andrei Svechnikov were headed to Carolina. But Montreal did move up one spot from where they had been, winning the final lottery to secure the third pick of the event, largely expected to be where offensive winger Filip Zadina would be taken off the board.
Zadina wasn’t the only option. Brady Tkachuk brought a powerful offensive game, and Quinn Hughes was a gifted defenceman with great potential. Centres approaching NHL readiness were deemed nonexistent for that class, with Barrett Hayton and Jesperi Kotkaniemi — who had spent most of his young career on the wing — the only considerations with such a high pick.
As the event drew closer, we looked at most of the options listed above as the potential candidates to join the organization. “Perhaps the biggest knock on Kotkaniemi is that he will require time before being able to play in the NHL,” that article stated; a sentiment held by many scouts leading up to the draft.
The Canadiens opted for the young Finnish centreman over those other quality prospects when their spot came up. It may not have been the choice some Habs fans in the crowd would have made, but it gave Montreal the chance to develop a top-line pivot from within the organization.
June 22, 2018: Getting to know third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi
He was a player with plenty of skill that remained untapped, and a solid defensive foundation to build an offensive game from.
There was a lot to look forward to from Kotkaniemi, but maybe not for a year, or even two. Given that the Canadiens had been one of the league’s worst team the year before, not getting an NHL-ready player likely meant they were in store for more of the same in 2018-19.
June 24, 2018: What are the contract options for Jesperi Kotkaniemi?
Montreal had options with Kotkaniemi. Not only could they have opted to ink him to an NHL deal, but he could have also played in the AHL as a first-round European prospect.
A contract with Ässät in Liiga presented the top option for Kotkaniemi’s development, and that would have been a great place for him to keep blossoming into an NHL player.
His work in Finland in his draft year was quite impressive, even when compared to some of the other young stars who had come from the country. Unlike some others like Patrik Laine and Sebastian Aho, Kotkaniemi hadn’t been placed on a top line to ease his transition to the professional game.
The Canadiens kept the option of a start in Montreal open by inking him to his entry-level contract a week after he was selected.
July 4, 2018: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is taking it one step at a time
We caught our first glimpses of Kotkaniemi in a Canadiens jersey at development camp, and saw a player who wasn’t quite ready to challenge for an NHL spot. He wasn’t too concerned about putting on a show as the third overall pick, knowing he needed to work on getting powerful, stating “maybe after that I’m ready to come here.“
August 24, 2018: 2018 Montreal Canadiens Top 25 Under 25: #6 Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Seeing him more as a project, Kotkaniemi didn’t crack the top five of our Top 25 Under 25 series. Some panellists had him that high, but his ultimate position was sixth as several voters wanted to see some more development before they granted him a high place.
His first competitive NHL action came in the pre-season against the Devils. He potted his first goal wearing the home red, much to the delight of those in attendance at the Bell Centre.
September 23, 2018: Frozen Frames: Breaking down Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s pre-season performances
It was just one of many encouraging plays he made in the tuneup games; plays that were showing he may be ready to make an NHL debut much sooner than had been expected just a few weeks earlier.
September 27, 2018: The Canadiens are in a no-lose situation with Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Playing in the NHL, being a step away in Laval, returning to Finland to develop his game slowly and steadily — there was no bad option for how Kotkaniemi’s season would play out.
September 29, 2018: Jesperi Kotkaniemi has made the Montreal Canadiens’ opening-night roster
In the end it turned out his path to the NHL had already been determined. He would be in the opening-night lineup after forcing the coaching staff to keep him around for at least the opening games of the season.
As was the case in his draft year, the coaching staff didn’t go easy on the young centre in his first NHL game. He had plenty of minutes versus the top players on what many had pegged as a Stanley Cup favourite, and came out looking very good in those head-to-head matchups.
October 27, 2018: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is staying with the Montreal Canadiens
That type of play was seen throughout the next eight games Montreal played. There was no reason to send him to a lesser league when his nine-game trial was complete; he showed that he was an NHL player.
December 9, 2018: It’s time for Jesperi Kotkaniemi to be given a bigger role
Despite his rapid ascent, Claude Julien remained a bit reluctant to use his rookie in key situations. For a team that was struggling to stay in a post-season position, there was no reason to not see what Kotkaniemi could do with more resposibility.
December 21, 2018: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is being given a bigger role by Claude Julien
The coach eventually came around to that thinking as well, starting to trust Kotkaniemi in more critical minutes.
Having played nearly every game to that point of the season, Julien decided to sit his charge for the opening game of the California road trip, which extended to the second versus the San Jose Sharks as well. The coach wanted to give his rookie a break after a hectic schedule, hoping he would be rejuvenated for the playoff push.
The two games off weren’t enough to restore the batteries to full charge. Rather than watch as Kotkaniemi battled fatigue at the most critical moment of the season, Julien made the decision to reduce his workload by shifting him to the wing to kick off the final series of games.
It was a position he played for two games, until the Canadiens were eliminated from playoff contention ahead of the final game, and he was returned to the centre position.
April 23, 2019: Jesperi Kotkaniemi underwent knee surgery for ‘minor’ injury
Once the season was over, it was announced that Kotkaniemi had undergone surgery on his knee. With six months to recover from the procedure there wasn’t much to be concerned about for an impact on his sophomore season, though you had to wonder what effect it had on his play down the stretch of his rookie campaign.
September 4, 2019: Jesperi Kotkaniemi: A young player making his mark in the league
It was just two months ago that Kotkaniemi turned 19 years old. The rapid growth he showed from having his name announced on June 22 to skating off an NHL ice surface for the 79th and final time on April 6 would have been impressive for any player, let alone the youngest one to start the year in the top league. It was just the beginning to what will be a great career, and there are still a few years of rapid improvement in store.
September 5, 2019: Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the Contagious Attitude
The progress of the prospect and performance of the player were standout elements of his first year, but so was the personality of the young Finn all through the season. From succinct comments in his scrums to his permanent smile, he provided the team a minty fresh breath of fresh air.
Grade Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s 2018-19 season
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