At the start of training camp, I thought that Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s play would pick up as the pre-season went on, but that overall, he would struggle. I was expecting some doubts to arise in his case as it was a real possibility that he would not be able to show his full ability in a Montreal Canadiens uniform in his first year.
Kotkaniemi isn’t the greatest skater or a physical presence like fellow top draft pick Brady Tkachuk. He will probably fill out and improve his speed, but right now he can’t rely on those tools to dominate. Instead, he uses his ability to read the game to both create offence for his team and break the attempts of the opposition.
The NHL, even if it is just in the pre-season stage, is played at a completely different pace than the U18 contests, or Liiga, despite being a solid professional league in its own right. It was then normal to expect Kotkaniemi to have some difficulty tuning his brain to the faster game, on a smaller surface that he was not used to.
But I underestimated the third overall pick.
What Kotkaniemi has done to this point is more than impressive. Apart from his very obvious skill level, he has shown a capacity for adaptation that is rare in such a young player. Every game he plays, he gets better.
In his first pre-season game, he scored. But his third period was much better than the first two when he wasn’t as visible.
In his second contest, he started adding deception to his play and was challenging defenders to get passes to his teammates with a surprising amount of success, but he was still a bit shaky in his puck-handling, overdoing things and losing possession a few times.
In his third preseason match, Kotkaniemi had his head up, was shuffling the puck with ease, and was cutting to the slot to fire, or skating through it attempting to tip the shot of his defencemen. He hit three posts and could have had a couple of assists.
But it is not just his game with the puck that has grown to impress, but also his play away from it. Kotkaniemi isn’t the perfect defender right now, but he fills his centre role well and doesn’t have any problem finding his marks in the defensive zone. He takes good angles and is rarely a step behind his coverage. With the help of his strong wingers, his line was not buried defensively very often.
With his creativity and a solid all-around game, Kotkaniemi doesn’t just function well on NHL ice, but now seems to rise a cut above on more than a few occasions, doing it while always displaying his usual joy to be there, playing the game; something that could become contagious for his teammates.
The decision to keep him for an extended look makes more and more sense for Habs management, and it is very possible that the choice has already been made for them with the way he has been performing. There is still time, but he deserves to stay a bit longer.
He has been one of the standout players at this camp, and he is probably not done showing what he is capable of.
Suggestions are welcome to improve this new analysis format that may become an ongoing series of articles.