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Micro Analysis: Jesperi Kotkaniemi is finding it hard to shine with lesser lights

Injuries have affected many players on the roster, perhaps none more than the sophomore.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

One must feel for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He has always been a creative setup artist in his career, but with the Habs this season, the third line role he plays has often been dictated by the north-south skating of role players.

Ryan Poehling could have been a breath of fresh air for Kotkaniemi, but it’s clear the rookie isn’t the driving force he should become in a couple of years. There is the odd flash of his playmaking ability, like we saw at the end of the third period when he gave an open net to Nate Thompson, but generally he’s focused on keeping his game simple to stay with the big club — and you can’t really blame him for that. Their pairing might eventually bring more success when both youngsters have more experience under their belt.

For now, with a team riddled with injuries, Kotkaniemi has to make the most of the teammates he’s given. It isn’t always easy.

This is a shift from the first period. Peca doesn’t recognize he has space in the offensive zone and stays on the boards. When the puck cycles to him, he waits too long to make a pass and loses it. When the Habs get the puck back, Kotkaniemi restarts an offensive rush. Nick Cousins joins him, but he falls at the blue-line. Brett Kulak supports, but he skates into the line of defence (he really should stretch the ice and use the empty space across). Finally, Kotkaniemi can’t complete a pass.

Later on the same shift, the puck moves back to Cale Fleury, who sends it in space to Kotkaniemi. Cousins slashes across to take the puck instead, and both players end up on top of each other. They attract the two defenders, so Cousins lacks the space to make a play. He fires the puck off Kotkaniemi’s rear end. Kulak tries for a second rush-in, and Kotkaniemi joins, but the puck is sent out of his reach.

It was a difficult sequence that repeated itself through the night.

Now, compare it with this one shift where Kotkaniemi got to play with Artturi Lehkonen and Nick Suzuki.

In this offensive-zone presence, Suzuki reached around a defender to poke the puck loose, and Lehkonen smashed into the opponent to take him out of the play. It allowed Kotkaniemi to collect possession and find his Finnish counterpart in the defensive hole created by the previous hit. Suzuki and Lehkonen continued to move the puck away from the opposition. The former with timely support and steals, and the latter with his unrelenting motor. It gave Kotkaniemi a shot from the slot.

The ability of all three of Kotkaniemi, Suzuki, and Lehkonen to keep plays alive, to move and use open space, and to pass the puck around opposing sticks created the scoring chances. That’s not something players like Cousins and Peca possess, at least not at the same level.

Right now, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a player with limitations. He does great things, like using his long reach to dislodge the puck from an opponent’s grasp to start the offensive sequence above or the little hesitation to create a passing lane to feed Lehkonen for a one-timer, but he can’t protect the puck along the boards very well, and can’t explode out of tight spaces to elude defenders.

He creates inside space. If his teammates can’t attract the defence, occupy their attention, or use the open areas to become options when Kotkaniemi is the one under pressure, the centreman rarely will get chances to set up plays.

As said in a previous edition of this series, the best players adapt to linemates. They find ways to blend their own skills to complement those of other players. But, obviously, Kotkaniemi isn’t there yet. He is still at a stage where he has to work on his explosiveness and puck-shielding mechanics, and he’s doing it without top-six linemates that could hide his weaknesses and complement his strengths.

His season should be viewed in the context of his usage, which is perfectly normal for the same reasons stated above, and considering Kotkaniemi is one of the youngest players in the NHL.

Power-play movements

We finally got to see one of Nick Suzuki’s famous power-play snipes. There were so many of these shots in Junior hockey, so they were bound to resurface at some point in his NHL career. As Suzuki continues to improve, we should see more and more of his tricks.

More than the release, I think the really interesting thing in the rookie’s goal is the power-play movement that led to it. Here’s the full sequence.

At the start of it, the Habs only move the puck at the top of the zone. As a result, they face the pressure of both of the Sens’ defensive forwards; they barely have time to make plays. But then, Tomas Tatar and Suzuki star using Lehkonen in the bumper spot a bit more, and they also look for each other with cross-ice passes. In the process, both the offensive and defensive formations move lower in the zone, and that’s what opens space at the top.

Jeff Petry then slides with the puck along the blue line, and drags the lone defensive forward sent to challenge him up there this time. Petry hits a circling-up Suzuki, who attacks the top of circle with speed and picks his spot to fire.

The Habs prepared Suzuki’s goal by moving the puck and the defensive formation. It wasn’t perfectly executed, but when they missed a pass or a shot, the team was first to get it back. That’s great power-play work.

Marco Scandella taking the Benn Chiarot route?

It always takes some time for a player to adapt to a new system, especially for a defenceman. Chiarot needed around half a dozen games to feel comfortable, and that was after playing in the pre-season.

I don’t think Marco Scandella has the same skill — Chiarot skates and controls the puck better — but he has been involving himself more in the attack, which is a must in the Habs’ system, especially since so many forwards still fill the infirmary. Every element on the ice has to contribute to offence if the team is to win a game.

Next for Scandella is developing the confidence to hold on to the puck, wait for support, and find passes to better scorers, something he proved he could do at times with the Buffalo Sabres, even if it’s not part of his core identity.