The reaction of the Montreal Canadiens faithful to the selection of Jesperi Kotkaniemi ranged across the spectrum. From happiness at having reached El Dorado and found that mythical number-one centre, to mild annoyance mixed with the general understanding that the Habs had drafted for need rather than skill, to abject shock and horror. But all of that is water under the bridge now. Kotkaniemi is a Canadien, and if all goes well, he’ll be one for a considerable stretch of time.
Much of the controversy surrounding the Kotkaniemi selection revolved around whether the Habs should select for positional need or simply take the best player available, which was widely believed to be Filip Zadina. Kotkaniemi’s own abilities were generally not included in the discussion. The Finnish forward was considered the best centre in a weak draft, clearly worthy of a fifth to tenth overall selection, but if Montreal were to select him it would be only due to clear organizational deficiencies and not anything of Kotkaniemi’s own doing.
Apart from three numbers which have been seared into every Canadiens fan’s brain: 10-19-29, not too much has been examined or discussed regarding Kotkaniemi’s actual on-ice performance. Largely due to a lack of visibility for the Liiga in North America, Kotkaniemi has been judged more using a seven-game sample against boys rather than a 57 game sample against men.
So, how does Kotkaniemi’s Liiga draft year really stack up? Luckily, thanks to the tireless work of Simo Teperi, we have NHL-level data available for the Liiga seasons ranging from 2015-2018, which allows us to take a stab at answering this question. This four-season timespan gives us the following set of forward comparables, all of whom played their full draft year in the Liiga and were selected in the first two rounds.
Immediately, it’s apparent that Kotkaniemi has some lofty peers. Patrik Laine is already being hailed as the next Alex Ovechkin, Sebastian Aho is the only untouchable player on a Carolina team in flux, and Mikko Rantanen is coming off a point-per-game season with the Avalanche.
Where does the newest Habs first-rounder fit in with this illustrious cohort?
At the most basic level, incredibly well. Kotkaniemi surpasses all of his peers in terms of raw goal- and point-production at five-on-five — even outscoring Laine. Kotkaniemi played more games, but his 5v5 G/60 exceeds, or at least matches, every player investigated here except for Aho.
However, the truly impressive number is Kotkaniemi’s 16 assists, with 12 of them being primary. The young Finnish forward clearly has ample playmaking capabilities given that he racked up these helpers whilst on the wing. It also must be noted that Kotkaniemi’s Ässät squad was considerably weaker than most of the teams his counterparts played on. A point which we’ll revisit in more detail later.
Kotkaniemi’s 5v5 assists tally alone (16) exceeds the total 5v5 point totals of everyone on the list except Mikko Rantanen (18), so it’s no surprise that the Ässät winger’s 5v5 P/60 is the highest of the players sampled. Furthermore, when we look at primary points, Kotkaniemi’s advantage increases from 0.06 over the next closest player (Roope Hintz) to 0.29.
Possession and balance of play
Kotkaniemi’s numbers aren’t nearly so impressive when we look at controlling possession and driving play, although they remain quite good. The Habs’ top prospect excels at 5v5 shot generation, but struggles somewhat to contain opposition shot attempt numbers.
Kotkaniemi’s heat map backs up this conclusion, showing that Ässät both enjoys and allows more shots from the slot with their rookie winger on the ice. Kotkaniemi himself seems to be central to both of these trends, given that the red-shaded areas in both offensive and defensive zones are on his side of the ice.
That said, 50% CF% and 53% GF% values (both numbers being above team averages) are nothing to worry about for a 17-year-old in his first professional season. The important take-home message here is that Kotkaniemi has the skill and acumen to create and drive offence for a team that sorely needed it.
Strength of team and player usage
The main reason that Kotkaniemi’s relatively poorer possession metrics should not be a cause of concern is, well, put simply: his Ässät team was bad.
Aside from Rantanen, the players we look at here all played for playoff teams and outside of Rantanen’s TPS, Hintz’s Ilves and Kotkaniemi’s Ässät, everyone else played for teams that finished in the top three in the regular season. Three of the eight players played for Kanada-malja winners, a fourth lost in the finals, and a fifth lost to the eventual champions in the semifinals. This gap in quality can be clearly seen when looking at Quality of Teammate and Quality of Competition metrics.
For example, Laine played with teammates who averaged 54% CF, while Jesse Puljujärvi’s linemates averaged a whopping 57%! In contrast, Kotkaniemi’s linemates had worse possession metrics than him (49.71% to 50.13%), and the Pori native was one of two players investigated here (Hintz being the other) to play against opposition with higher CF% values than his teammates.
Despite (or perhaps due to) the clear inferiority of his team, Kotkaniemi was relied on in more pressure situations than his peers. The majority of rookies in any league are sheltered, especially those who are teenagers, and Kotkaniemi was no exception when it came to zone starts. However, the scoreboard had no effect on his usage, and he was one of two players (Aho was the other) to play more while his team was trailing than while his team was ahead.
This could be a product of active coaching. For example, in a season where his TPS team won only 17 games, Rantanen managed to play almost twice as much with the lead as without it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a team can be so superior that taking a regular shift inevitably results in playing more with the lead than without it. Whatever the cause, it’s easier from a pressure and space perspective to play with the lead than without it, making Kotkaniemi’s season all the more notable.
Good, or just lucky?
In the grand scheme of things, a single season is not a great sample size (just ask Max Pacioretty or Carey Price). That being said, the underlying metrics do not throw up any red flags regarding whether Kotkaniemi’s breakout season was the product of luck. The winger’s expected metrics more or less matched his actual results. His shooting percentage was a very pedestrian 5.69, and his PDO was pretty much right on 100, indicating average shooting and goaltending luck was with him on the ice. He certainly didn’t ride the coattails of his linemates either. We talked about Kotkaniemi’s prodigious assist tally earlier but the teenager also threw 123 pucks at the net, generating a higher iCF/60 value than every comparable except for Laine.
The jury is still out on whether Kotkaniemi can be a centre at the professional level, but he’s already shown that he’s one of the better prospects that the Liiga has ever produced. He’s a creator and a driver of play, showing the ability to both score goals and set up teammates. The burden of a poor Ässät squad (Kotkaniemi’s power-play numbers are particularly bad) may have prevented him from putting up gaudier offensive tallies and dented his defensive metrics, but make no mistake, the Canadiens have acquired one of the most well-rounded prospects in the 2018 Entry Draft.
To drive home that point, here are the top five 5v5 scorers for Laine’s Tappara, Puljujärvi’s Kärpät, and Kotkaniemi’s Ässät teams.