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The maturation of Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The young Finn brought his best against the Oilers.

Calgary Flames v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

Fans continually wonder what a young player like Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s ceiling will be in the NHL, and as his third season in the NHL rolls on we still aren’t totally sure yet. That’s okay.

We’ve seen bad slumps, and we’ve seen great heights for the 20-year-old centre, and Wednesday night against the Oilers was most certainly a high point.

From the outset of the game Kotkaniemi made his presence felt on the ice, when he launched Josh Archibald into the Canadiens bench with a thunderous body check.

Kotkaniemi hasn’t been one to shy away from the physical side of the game, and he’s using his growing frame to his advantage. In a game that was highly physical in all three zones, seeing the younger players like Kotkaniemi step into it without missing a beat is a huge step forward in their development.

Then, Kotkaniemi’s vision opened the scoring for Montreal, as his partnership with Artturi Lehkonen paid off. While in full stride through the neutral zone Kotkaniemi took a feed from Jeff Petry, blew by Jesse Puljujarvi and entered the Oilers zone with ease. From there he didn’t hold up and try to find a seam, Kotkaniemi pulled the puck back as he drifted across the slot, drawing an Oilers defender out of position. Once he read that he fed a pass to Lehkonen who easily flicked the puck over Mike Smith’s shoulder to open the scoring.

It’s the kind of play that shows you how much Kotkaniemi has learned in the NHL, and how high his ceiling can be. He’s not forcing plays, and when he can read a defence like this it’s not hard to believe there’s plenty more of that talent to come.

On the advanced stats side of things, Kotkaniemi was a star once again, and he did so against two of the best in the NHL on a given night. According to NaturalStatTrick, in the 6:54 of five-on-five ice time he had against Leon Draisaitl, Kotkaniemi controlled 75% of the shot attempts, and generated five scoring chances while allowing none against.

That’s not all. Against Connor McDavid, Kotkaniemi also controlled 75% of the shot attempts while producing four scoring chances and allowing none.

What’s perhaps the most impressive is that Kotkaniemi did all of this while being the fourth least used forward at five-on-five. The only forwards who played less was the line of Eric Staal, Corey Perry, and Jonathan Drouin.

If Kotkaniemi is playing like this, Dominique Ducharme needs to lean on him a bit more. The young centre was thriving against the Oilers and their two megastars, so what is stopping him from feasting on the lesser forwards in the North Division as well?