Montreal Canadiens head coach Claude Julien started giving praise to Jesperi Kotkaniemi in Phase 3 training camp, noting that his skating improved among other things.
That praise didn’t stop after Monday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think you saw a big difference as far as where he was when we sent him to Laval. He’s still a young player, he just turned 20, and he’s progressing fairly well in my eyes,” said Julien after the game. “It was his first game in even longer than most of our guys because he was injured [...] I think he’s heading in the right direction.”
Technically, you won’t see much different with Kotkaniemi’s skating but he was moving better, as his coach pointed out. He was more engaged. He was more confident. He was involved in the play.
When Kotkaniemi played briefly in Laval with the Rocket, you saw that same engagement, that confidence was building.
It was a harmless play in an otherwise unremarkable first period. Kotkaniemi found himself in the centre of the offensive zone with the puck on his stick. He didn’t hesitate, he just shot the puck. The shot was saved, but it grabbed my attention. As it turned out, it would be his only shot on goal in the game but that shot without him looking towards his teammates first stuck out.
There were a lot of reasons for Kotkaniemi’s struggles to start the season, but the end result was his confidence dropping. He was tentative, he was overthinking. Both of those things are killers in the NHL because by the time you choose what you want to do it’s well too late. Ironically, those are two things that the AHL can help with. You have a bit more time, and you gain confidence, and then everything around you slows down, instead of you slowing down around everything else.
Two passes in particular stick out. There was a nifty back pass to Jeff Petry after a zone-entry leading to a scoring chance, and a cross-ice feed to Ben Chiarot shortly before Paul Byron’s goal. He always had that ability, but it was not something we saw this season before he was sent down.
It wasn’t just Kotkaniemi’s play with the puck that impressed me. The majority of his ice time was against the line of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman. In a game where the Canadiens had last change, and are preparing for a team that has two very strong lines like the Maple Leafs do, it’s worth noting — even if the team may have been rolling four lines.
Kotkaniemi faced the Matthews line for four minutes at even strength, and the Canadiens controlled the majority of shot attempts when he did so. Montreal’s strength is balance, and Kotkaniemi playing as well as he did on Tuesday will continue to give him confidence and not fall back into the trap he was in earlier in the season.
It will also keep his coach’s growing confidence in him as well.