Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi play a similar type of game. They manipulate the puck in ways that most other players can’t and pay more attention to defensive details than other youngsters. But what truly ties them together and what led them to the NHL is their ability to read and anticipate the play. Yet despite their similarities in style, Suzuki currently centres the second line for the Montreal Canadiens, while Kotkaniemi has been moved down to the minors.
There are many factors that led the two young forwards down different paths in this 2019-20 season. We can’t ignore the injuries. It’s a real challenge for young players to catch up to the increasing speed of the game as the season goes on, and it becomes even harder when they miss valuable time. Suzuki ramped up his play along with his peers from training camp onward. Kotkaniemi — twice — came back to the race a couple of laps down.
Suzuki is also the more physically mature player. The NHL experience of the Finnish centreman is somewhat compensated by the additional year Suzuki got to train and fine-tune his game. His 5’11” frame is easier to fill; Kotkaniemi has the height advantage at 6’3”, but his size puts him more at risk of imbalances. Development and training impact several different aspects of on-ice performances, and perhaps none more than small-area play — the biggest separator of the two young forwards.
The lack of space makes the NHL challenging. All defensive systems aim to create the smallest gap possible between friendly and opposing skaters. In turn, there are many unavoidable battles for possession every shift. Being able to handle and beat back-pressure in the offensive zone is paramount.
That’s done through a progression of skills: establishing possession of the puck (either through winning a race to it, or receiving a pass), guarding it, and then manipulating defenders to create space in which to escape.
Some players execute this skill sequence better than others. A good part of them haven’t mastered the whole extent of it, only able to accomplish the first steps, enough to win battles with the support of teammates. Another group can pull off the whole sequence.
Suzuki belongs in the second category of players. Kotkaniemi ... well, he is still working on step one.
Suzuki can extend possession in the offensive zone with his back turned to the play, attract defenders to himself, and sometimes beat them to pass to open teammates. Kotkaniemi relies on taking advantage of defensive mistakes, or using the space given by defenders. He has to face his options; if he turns to the wall, opponents can easily take the puck away from him.
Puck-protection hinges on strength, but arguably moreso on technique. The following videos breaks down the details of the board-play of the two forwards.
Sometimes Kotkaniemi can’t outrace a defender to win the inside lane on a puck-retrieval. Other times he just forfeits that inside lane because he knows he will lose his positioning on body contact. When he does establish possession first, he lacks awareness of defenders approaching to check him, and, if he does see them coming, he doesn’t get in an appropriate position to guard the puck.
Even when defenders afford him the space to establish position and turn to protect it, he gets easily taken down. He can’t effectively lead them in the wrong direction with a fake before pivoting to escape.
Kotkaniemi’s lack of ability to resist checks also severely diminishes his ability to find scoring chances around the net. Instead of moving to his outside edges to push back against defenders and hold a pocket of space, he gets shoved away before he gets a first or second touch on the puck.
Suzuki, even in his earlier Junior days, has always sealed possession from defenders effectively.
He skates hard to win the inside lane, places his rear-end in between the defender and the puck, and uses his knee and free arm to shield it from opposing access. He has a great feel for defensive pressure, so when an opponent overextends or reaches for his puck, he cuts back in space the other way. He’s also added some movement fakes that further help him escape tight quarters.
Suzuki might be slightly stronger and more explosive than Kotkaniemi, but he doesn’t have a size or skating advantage over most defenders he beats. His small-area game wins out because his posture is solid, getting lower on his skates, leaning against defenders, and making better use of his outside edges. His body awareness and knack for misdirection also give him the edge. They’re all things he developed through repetition and skill training.
It can take a few seconds to create an opening in the defence. Suzuki’s play is more suited to cycling the puck below the dots until a seam to the slot or to the top of the zone appears. His ability to hold off defensive pressure means he makes more patient decisions in the situations where Kotkaniemi rushes the play, which can kill it before it turns into a scoring chance — or worse, create dangerous turnovers.
A lack of small-area game leads directly to game management problems, a bigger issue for Kotkaniemi than it is for Suzuki, and in the end that’s what led to the Finn being sent down to the AHL.
As a rookie, Kotkaniemi imposed himself as a good defensive forward with the help of Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia as linemates. This season he had to be the most dependable element on his line more often, especially after being paired with Ryan Poehling, who is still in his first games in the league. As a result, Kotkaniemi made more costly mistakes.
The sequence below is at the end of the game against Washington last week.
Kotkaniemi skates up on the breakout expecting Poehling to chip the puck on the boards, but his teammate instead turns and tries to reach him in the middle of the ice with a backhand pass. Kotkaniemi’s route takes him ahead of the play, above the puck, and the misread — by both players — creates a turnover. Victor Mete blocks an ensuing opposing shot, and Kotkaniemi picks the puck back up.
It’s there that his lack of awareness and comfort against back-pressure costs him. He thinks he has more pressure than he does, and doesn’t identify a second opponent coming in on the forecheck. He rushes himself, and makes a dangerous lateral pass in the middle of the ice that a Caps player intercepts, forcing Carey Price to intervene.
Kotkaniemi also caused a goal on a similar play a few weeks ago against the Pittsburgh Penguins (the second clip in the video above).
On the very next shift in the Capitals game, the coaching staff sends Suzuki to take the defensive-zone faceoff. He wins it with help from his wingers, and the play transitions up the ice. Brett Kulak is thirsty for offence and beats Suzuki to the zone. Suzuki stays back, covering for his defenceman. He doesn’t overstep offensively, he picks up a Caps forward on a rush back to his zone, and descends to cover the front of the net, continuing to act as the rear-guard until Kulak skates low enough to switch with him. The puck bounces to Suzuki, and he safely clears it up ice — the play Kotkaniemi couldn’t make a shift before.
Small-area play and situational awareness are not make-or-break abilities for NHL careers, but for a given player, especially one not gifted with a dominant skating ability, they are the difference between surviving and thriving; between chasing the game and being able to use natural skills to create offence. They are the main factors that currently separate Suzuki and Kotkaniemi.
Kotkaniemi is younger than Suzuki. In fact, he is still one of the youngest players in the NHL. The aspects of the game in which he lags behind are some of the same most newcomers struggle with in their first years in the league, and what most NHL players improve the most over their full career. For now, a stint in the American Hockey League will be good for Kotkaniemi. There’s a little bit more space and a little bit less pressure, and that will help him renew his identity as a play-making centreman, like the version continuously able to find ways to connect with teammates in tough situations last season, even with only the use of his superior handling ability and vision.
As Kotkaniemi improves his skating and strength and develops the tricks of the trade through training, he will become better able to separate from defenders and handle their pressure. He will also be less tempted to rush his decisions with the puck; new kinds of plays will open up for him. As a result, the coaching staff will trust him with more minutes, will give him more responsibilities, and pair him with better linemates. Those things will translate to more production and a brighter status in the NHL — not unlike what is happening with Suzuki right now.
In the end, both of these players are ahead of the normal player development curve. Kotkaniemi made the team out of camp at 18 years old last year and proved himself very useful to the team on arrival. Suzuki did the same this year at 20, and he is now learning his role a lot faster than even the most unrealistic expectations. By comparison, Phillip Danault didn’t play regular minutes in the top-six until he was 22 years old, and even the drilled centreman that he is continues to improve year-to-year.
We often hear that development is not linear. It’s a process with different stages. Players need to unlock certain abilities before they can make significant progress. It takes time to learn to become a top NHL player, and Kotkaniemi has plenty of it to work on his craft.