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‘It was my favourite game of the year’: Jesperi Kotkaniemi talks about his new reality in the AHL

The first-round pick played his first AHL game on Saturday.

Shanna Martin

Jesperi Kotkaniemi came back to his stall at Place Bell to talk to the waiting media. The Laval Rocket lost the game to the Belleville Senators 5-4 in overtime, after holding a 4-1 lead in the second half of the third period. It was a game that no one in the Rocket room was happy to be a part of.

There are some things more important than the result of the game, and for Kotkaniemi, he showed the ability to see the bigger picture.

“It was my favourite game of the year,” Kotkaniemi said.

He didn’t smile when he said this, the loss still weighing hard on him. But while the loss weighed him down, there was also the sense that another weight had lifted.

No player is happy to play in the AHL, or to be sent to the AHL. Rocket head coach Joël Bouchard often mentions that no one dreams to play in that league. Disappointment is normal, if not expected when a player is sent down. But there are positives, and for Kotkaniemi, that includes getting time on the ice and the ability to learn at a different pace than in Montreal.

Kotkaniemi, according to Bouchard, played over 16 minutes in the overtime loss and that was despite not killing penalties in a game Laval took six penalties. The third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft will eventually take that role on, and will get more ice time as a result.

“He has to fill every role,” said Bouchard. “We want him to be a 200 foot player. We have to get him to kill penalties. He’s a smart player.”

Bouchard said that being in the AHL will allow him to teach him and prepare him for different roles and try new things where the pressure of winning at all costs is not as high as it is in the NHL.

“He needs to play,” Bouchard said. “There are things that I can work on him with that are harder to do at the NHL level.”

Kotkaniemi’s sense of humour didn’t leave him, either perhaps another indicator of where his head is at. When asked what he wanted to improve personally in order to get back to the top level, he gave an answer no one was expecting.

“Just trying to stay alive here,” he said. “There are a few guys who can kill me on every shift, so that’s one thing.”

He did bring it back serious.

“Getting confidence back and playing with the puck a little more I think that will help me,” he said.

The adjustment period surely won’t be easy, but the one thing that may be afforded to Bouchard and Kotkaniemi is time. And both parties know that no matter how long Kotkaniemi is in Laval, there will be opportunities to work.

“There were a few plays he made today where I went to him and said ‘you can’t do that. You do that in the NHL, and Claude [Julien] won’t play you,” Bouchard said. “What I like about Kotkaniemi is that he’s invested. He seemed happy to be here. He understands he needs to play. The reality of the NHL is that it doesn’t forgive you. If you have trouble playing in Laval, you’re not going to get better when you drive 15 minutes south. This is real life. It’s not easier in the NHL.”

While the media and fans have been debating where Kotkaniemi should be playing, the Finnish forward said he wasn’t necessarily expecting to get the news he got on Saturday morning. He showed up to the Bell Centre before the Canadiens game against the Florida Panthers, and that was when he was told he would be sent down.

He then went to Laval, and had a short meeting with Bouchard. Even though Kotkaniemi was making his AHL debut, he does have previous experience with the Rocket bench boss, as he was the coach at Kotkaniemi’s first development and rookie camp at the start of last season.

“We had a relationship and it built fast. For me it wasn’t unchartered territory,” Bouchard said.

There’s a lot of changeover in the Rocket locker room, but it’s hard not to notice that Kotkaniemi’s locker was immediately next to Cale Fleury’s. Both young players took different paths to the NHL, but are going through something very similar this year. Both players were healthy scratches recently in the NHL and both were sent down within 24 hours of one another.

A significant part of the Montreal Canadiens future is in Laval, and while a lot of people involved from fans to the players themselves wish they were the present, sometimes a step backwards is necessary to then move forward.