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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is taking advantage of his opportunities

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The growth of the young Finn is front and — yes — centre.

NHL: APR 12 Maple Leafs at Canadiens Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been in the spotlight since before he was drafted. As soon as there were rumblings that the Montreal Canadiens would take the rising prospect third overall, people were apprehensive about his merits.

After his first game at the rookie tournament which saw him on the ice for a goal against from fourth overall pick Brady Tkachuk, he said he would get better every day. There has been adversity since then, of course. A struggle in his second season led to him finishing the regular season in the American Hockey League with an injury.

The post-season allowed him to return to the NHL and the performances of Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki made Max Domi expendable.

This season has seen more adversity for Kotkaniemi as his production hasn’t always matched his play. However, his growth in the second part of this season has been evident, especially under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.

In the first 20 games of the season, he had two goals and seven assists along with an average time on ice of 13:55. In the last 19 games, he has three goals and seven assists but with an average time on ice of 15:42. Since Ducharme took over from Claude Julien, Kotkaniemi is fourth on the team in shots at goal share per Natural Stat Trick, just behind the trio of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher.

Of course, Kotkaniemi got a promotion to play with Tatar and Danault — a role he performed in, but the rest of the team struggled. In the team’s last game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ducharme played Kotkaniemi with Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, and the trio excelled.

The question when you face a team like Toronto — or really any playoff contender in the North Division — is that if the Danault line takes care of the opponent’s top line, who gets tasked with the other line in the top six, and how well will they perform.

On Monday, Kotkaniemi, Drouin, and Anderson were tasked with facing the John Tavares line. Kotkaniemi played over seven minutes against the line of Tavares, Ilya Mikheyev, and Zach Hyman. In those seven minutes, according to Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens controlled 70% of shots at goal, 80% of shots on goal, and outscored Toronto 1-0.

That line also generated scoring chances throughout the night, making it an intriguing combination to watch as the Canadiens look to continue their run to the post-season.

The growth of Kotkaniemi takes additional meaning when you consider he is still one of the youngest players in the NHL. Of the 856 skaters to play an NHL game this season, only 18 are younger than the Canadiens centre despite this being his third season. If you consider regulars with at least 20 NHL games, that number drops to eight.

Kotkaniemi hasn’t always had the most offensive role throughout his NHL time, but playing with Drouin and Anderson — after getting a spot on the Canadiens most important line — as the season reaches its crescendo is an indication that the team is prepared to give more responsibility to the Finn.

So far, he’s taking passing the test.