Jesperi Kotkaniemi has many of the skills of a great player in the making. He has deft hands with which he can make defenders miss repeatedly. His vision of the game is not equaled by many in the 2018 draft class, and it contributes to his play both with and away from the puck. He also thinks the game quickly and, because of this, is an impressive playmaker who can get open himself for powerful releases.
The reason some were skeptical of his selection is because of his skating ability. He is rarely behind the play as he can get enough out of his edges and push to be at the right place at the right time, but projecting him to the NHL the concerns are not all illegitimate. Kotkaniemi (in his own words) skates in a funny way.
The Habs, answering questions about their newly acquired top prospect, said that his ACL surgery had an impact on his ability to move his legs, diminishing his speed. That is likely true, but the circumstances surrounding this injury a year ago remain a bit unclear, and even now, the perfectly healthy centre has his own unique stride.
There is, however, reason to be optimistic about Kotkaniemi’s skating, notably the improvements he has already made.
After watching Kotkaniemi for a short while, it becomes quite easy to pick him out of the crowd on the ice. His stance is high and a bit rounded out. He is slightly hunched over, with his backside sticking out and his blade pointing to the ceiling. They’re all things that contributes to making him unmissable.
This positioning is not really an issue when gliding in open ice like in the image above, but it can be around the boards; hanging forward like that diminishes the strength of the upper body, which is used to check and resist opponents’ checks. Power is also derived from the legs, so being straighter with more knee bend makes for a stronger centre of gravity. This can help you move others and resist back pressure.
Kotkaniemi will have to be solid in tight spaces as he transitions to the NHL. At his size, it could become one of the qualities in his game with time. Right now, he has work to do to be able to pin opponents and create space for himself to come out with the puck off the boards. This will also come with work in the gym.
But saying that Kotkaniemi can’t protect the puck would be wrong. He is pretty good at it when he has momentum. Take a look at this sequence from a recent pre-season game.
Kotkaniemi retrieves the loose puck behind the goal line and accelerates behind the net with a checker on his back. To gain separation, the centre drives his knee forward and gains body positioning. He is now in front of the other player, effectively walling the puck. The opponent shoves him in one last attempt at knocking him from it, but due to his strong stance on his skates, the push doesn’t shake him and only contributes to giving him more momentum to separate from the checker.
With a stickhandling move to his backhand to evade a second opponent, Kotkaniemi creates the zone exit for his team.
In this same sequence, the center then has to join his team on the rush, giving us a good angle of his forward stride.
After passing the puck, Kotkaniemi transitions to getting lower on his skates and strides to reach the opposing blue line. His knees are bent to a relatively good angle, helping him generate more power. He still gets a bit too bit hunched over and doesn’t really bring his legs to full extension.
These are other clips of his forward stride during the season.
You can see him become almost parallel to the ice at times with his torso as he hunches over in his pursuit for the puck. With his weight over his toes like this, the centre loses the ability to push with the full blade and gain more out of each stride.
Kotkaniemi also has a tendency to recover his feet wide under his body after a push — something exacerbated by the hunched-over stance — landing almost on his inside edges, which can cause more friction with the ice. He also swings his left arm more than his right and has to unrotate his upper body slightly on this side as he skates.
In other words, the prospect stride isn’t as long as it could be and has some quirks, leading to a loss of speed and him working harder than what he needs to to follow the play.
Compare Kotkaniemi’s forward stride with Jesse Ylonen’s below. He keeps his back straight while bending his knees and recovers his feet directly under him. He flies past defenders to reach a puck that was dumped into the zone.
Acceleration and agility
Despite the inefficiencies in his skating, Kotkaniemi can still makes plays off the rush quite easily with the usage of crossovers. This way, what he doesn’t have in straight-line speed is compensated by quick accelerations as he moves through the zones.
He can use crossovers in rapid successions, attacking the opposing blue line on an arc, but also in between his forward strides to distance himself from defenders and beat them wide when the lane is open.
In the clip above, you see him using those crossovers as he skates between the blue lines to rush the puck up the ice for a shot (a release in between two strides to try to surprise the goalie) and also to get in position for a pass as he enters the offensive zone; a pass that he turned into a ridiculous spin-o-rama feed of his own.
He is also pretty agile on his skates. He has no problem spinning around on defenders or opening up his hips to turn and face the play to look for a pass. His feet work very well with his deft stickhandling in that aspect of his game.
In his acceleration from a stop, Kotkaniemi can be relatively quick and wins his fair share of races to loose pucks. That being said, there are still some elements he can work on there. He tends to sway from side to side, which is partly caused by his arm movement and not pushing back enough on his first few steps. He also jumps up on his first push instead of forward, which diminishes the momentum he gains.
Looking to the future
There are good qualities, but also weaknesses to the centre’s skating.
He is far from an immobile player; if he were to play with the Habs next year, it’s probable that his speed would be close to an average player in the NHL, but the concerns can’t be completely brushed away. Solid skating becomes very important if he is going to be facing top competition in the top league in the world like he is destined to. The pace of the game becomes even faster against those top players.
There have been improvements in Kotkaniemi’s skating. He got slightly better through the 2017-18 season, and if you look at how he was getting around the previous year, there is quite a difference.
Before, Kotkaniemi struggled to pick up speed. He had little knee bend and his crossovers didn’t contribute much to propulse him along as he failed to drive his hips into them, making him look like he is hopping on the ice. It’s something he is still guilty of, but to a much lesser extent.
He had the same great hands, but without the improvement in his feet, it was harder for him to beat the opposing defence relying solely on his stickhandling. By developing his skating ability, the prospect can now toy with opponents much more regularly.
The player’s mind for the game is another reason to remain optimistic. His great anticipation helps him stay ahead of the play, which, like we saw in his draft year, helped dominate against players often speedier than him. Good positioning is a bigger asset than an ability to catch up to your mistakes.
Kotkaniemi can finds ways to create space without the need for speed. Take a look at this (last) clip from this summer.
Kotkaniemi is entering the zone with a defender on his back. To keep the opposing player at a distance, the centre purposefully brings the puck within reach of the defender to have him lunge forward in an attempt to poke at it and lose speed in his pursuit. This way, Kotkaniemi manages to stay in front of the defender and keep the space ahead of him open to glide in.
He continues to circle the offensive zone this way while baiting the defence, attracting all the attention before finding one of his teammates in the slot with a great drop pass.
He seems to be on an upward curve in his development, including in his skating, which should only add the excitement he’s been generating. There are also resources available to him to continue working on that aspect of his game on and off the ice, like skating coaches.
One possible explanation for Kotkaniemi’s skating is a lack of ankle flexibility; the ability to have his knees completely over his toes as he skates. Kotkaniemi shows that he can do so at times, but generally he seems to be achieving that position by leaning forward, or hunching over to an extent.
Bending your knees to 90 degrees, while keeping your back relatively straight in a forward lean is an ideal skating position, but if you lack ankle flexibility, your weight is going to be too far backward, behind where your centre of mass should be for optimal balance. It’s possible to counteract this by leaning forward with your torso or hunching over like Kotkaniemi, bringing your weight more over your toes, shortening your stride.
Lack of ankle mobility could also explain his wider base. It is harder to bring your feet all the way under you after a push if you don’t have the full range of motion in your ankles.
However, this is only a theory, and it could realistically be a very different problem. This just speaks to the importance of having specialty coaches in any team’s system, being able to assess a player’s mobility and what could be done to help them improve, getting both quicker and faster on the ice.
With the Habs’ approach of drafting centre prospects like Kotkaniemi — ones with high hockey sense and playmaking ability, skilled puck-handling allowing them to hold their own against opponents, but who are not elite skaters by any means — the need to maximize the organization’s ability to develop players in this area to get the most NHL potential out of their recent crop should be a top priority.
Special thanks to @MitchLBrown for his input while writing this series.