Before the Montreal Canadiens had even played their first game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying round, the entire world seemed to be honed in on Jesperi Kotkaniemi. After the Habs as a whole failed to show up against the Toronto Maple Leafs in an exhibition game, the knives were out for the young Finn.
It’s highly doubtful that Kotkaniemi listened to this radio hit, but what isn’t in doubt is that the Canadiens’ top budding star has become an entirely different player since this series started. Gone is the timid young player from earlier this season and in his place is a far more confident, grown-up player who is turning into the player many expected after his rookie year.
The most noticeable thing about his entire game is that Kotkaniemi is making all of his plays with authority. His passes are crisp and made with intent, a stark contrast to the kid who was gripping his stick and overthinking plays during his early-season struggles. With that new play style also comes a newfound aggression in his play as well. Kotkaniemi isn’t afraid to throw his new frame around to separate players from the puck.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi levels Brian Dumoulin hard enough to knock his helmet off pic.twitter.com/fcOmKrqWKe— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) August 6, 2020
Even around the net the Finnish centre refuses to back down from challenges, getting in the face of players like Kris Letang who gives him a hack or two after a whistle. Kotkaniemi’s confidence is clearly overflowing, and it’s not hard to understand why.
While his physical play is great, it’s worth noting that he’s been the best Habs forward against Pittsburgh so far.
No, he isn’t playing heavily against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and isn’t even close to being a team leader in ice time. However, in the role Claude Julien has him inserted in he’s taking full advantage of it so far. The Penguins’ bottom-six forwards have had absolutely no answers for the Canadiens’ bottom six through three games, and Kotkaniemi’s rejuvenated play is causing them all kinds of trouble. Compounding the issue for Pittsburgh is the abhorrent play of Jack Johnson, which Kotkaniemi has also taken full advantage of.
Again, it’s not like he’s playing 20 minutes a night like Phillip Danault, but with the time he’s getting Kotkaniemi is making the most of it to be effective.
So it’s very much time to put away the “Kotkaniemi is a bust” or the “Habs made the wrong pick” narratives. We’re barely two years into his professional career and it’s far too soon to make any kind of definitive statement on his career. This series against Pittsburgh has been a coming-out party for the third-overall pick, and it has to be tantalizing for the Canadiens to realize there’s still more growth to come from their budding star.
It’s time to curb the nonsense about Kotkaniemi’s development or the Canadiens picking him. He was doing just fine in his development before his spleen injury regardless of this postseason. Since his return though, it’s clear that Kotkaniemi is a new, massively improved player and he’s not here to listen to the narratives anymore.