Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been doing more than just holding his own since the start of regular season. At times, he has been the best player on the ice for the Habs, and this is saying a lot for an 18-year-old player in his first steps in the National Hockey League. His prowess has not been diminished by the increased pressure. If he continues on his upward curve, he will fast become one of the very top offensive elements on this team, if he is not already.
His time on ice has been respectable as of now, around 14-and-a-half minutes. The Habs calendar isn’t very favourable to a rookie, and starting the year with strong matchups has certainly impacted Kotkaniemi’s usage as of now.
Claude Julien is sheltering him. He has only been at the dot for two defensive faceoffs in three games, and we have seen the head coach slot another centre on his line against the opposition’s top players on more than a few occasions (which was also a mark of Dominique Ducharme, a tactic he used a lot in Junior).
This is expected, and it should continue until the Habs feel more comfortable freely using him. No matter his talent, the rookie has a way to go to be perfectly at ease and has a lot to learn. As had been said before, the fine mental tuning requires time. His game relies on him being ahead of the opposition, similarly to many great players in the league.
For his style of play, Kotkaniemi was often compared to one of those players in his draft year: Anze Kopitar. Kopitar isn’t the fastest player. He skates differently than Kotkaniemi, with a more upright stance instead of the hunched-over position that characterizes the 2018 third overall pick, but the effect is the same. The Los Angeles Kings’ captain is not one to blow past the opposition, and has therefore had to learn to beat them in other ways. He is a patient player with an ability to read the ice and a 200-foot game that many other forwards would envy. That game was recognized with the Selke Trophy in 2016 and 2018.
Kotkaniemi had a front-row seat to what Kopitar can do on Thursday, and there’s more than a few things he could pick up from watching the established NHL centre.
Kopitar showed his great positioning, but also his very active stick. It’s something that Kotkaniemi has in his toolbox, but could use to even greater extent in his own end, copying Kopitar who times himself better with the play to break up passes or tip attempts, not taking the hooking penalties that Kotkaniemi is having some trouble avoiding right now.
Patience is the name of Kopitar’s game. He doesn’t expend energy he doesn’t need to, and relies on being in the right place at the right time, surprising the opposition with his counters and not letting them adjust by keeping his intentions hidden.
It’s the same approach to the offensive game for the Kings forward. He reads the defence, finds the open lanes, and simply by attacking in the right spot can create a lot of confusion in the coverage, which he uses to set up others. He has great hands, but waits for the defenders to make the first move, baiting them into giving him an opportunity for a scoring chance.
The Habs’ top prospect is a fast learner, and picking up a few things from the top players he faces every night in the early part of the season will help him round out his game. This would in turn give him the trust of his coach in different situations and increase his ice time, mutually benefiting the Habs, who would then have one of their biggest offensive talents for more minutes.
It’s a process for Kotkaniemi. We have heard this a lot, but it couldn’t be more true. In the meantime, watching him get better is the best part about the start of the new season.
Suggestions are welcome to improve this new analysis format that is becoming an ongoing series of articles. Voice-over will be added in the future (once I figure it out...).