Jesperi Kotkaniemi spent a few months away from the ice, and came back to training camp with stories of sweating out in the gym with specialty trainers, while coaches sang the praise of his new regimen. They spoke of how much better the Finn moved in the drills and intrasquad competition.
Then, the first exhibition game arrived. Every movement of the 20-year-old forward was scrutinized. Every shift, every highlight became minute-long discussions. We watched, hoping to see the centreman take flight, hoping to see him show he will eventually rise up to his intended number-one position.
Skating is complex. It is the product of many factors that all influence each other: strength, flexibility, form, and dozens of body mechanics. Unfortunately, it can’t be changed overnight or in a few weeks of working out. Honing it requires months and years of intense, targeted training.
Kotkaniemi did improve his skating slightly, but the difference is not striking. If you put him on a rink with dozens of other players and removed all jersey numbers, you could still easily pick him out of the pack simply from his quirky form.
The Finnish centreman skates like he’s paddling confidently through heavy rapids.
A ton of elements combine to make his form look like that of a kayaker, but three particular ones stand out: his wide recovery, his hunched-over form, and his body rotation.
In a video below, I broke down all those details to make them clearer, but let’s start by explaining each of the terms, starting from the feet up.
A skate has two edges: the inside and the outside one. The inside edge is the one on the inside of the body and the outside edge — you guessed it — the one on the outside of the body.
When a skater with optimal form brings back his foot after a push, he places it under his centre of mass, under his shoulder so that can fully load his leg for his next push. A skate recovered under the centre of mass also falls on the middle part of the blade, or even better, on the outside edge to maximize the glide time and the length of the following push.
In his foot recovery after a push, Kotkaniemi falls short. When his skate tries to move back under him after a stride, it lands short of the centre of mass — on the inside edge of the blade — which bites the ice. It diminishes his glide time, shortens his stride, and prevents him from fully loading his leg and skate for the next push. As a result of his incomplete recovery, Kotkaniemi looks like he skates on wide tracks.
The Finn also hunches over. His body descends more and more toward the ice as he speeds up ice, to the point where it almost goes parallel to the surface. All skaters hunch over because it helps load the skate for power, but not to the point of Kotkaniemi. A skater with more of a straight, elevated back applies his full weight on his skate for longer in the push. He creates more pressure on the ice. Hunching over shifts the weight toward the front portion of the skate; Kotkaniemi ends up pushing more with his toes than his full foot.
This hunching-over issue is sometimes caused by a lack of ankle flexibility. If you can’t bend at the ankle, the main way to keep your weight over your skates and not fall over is to bend at the hips instead, or hunching over. But it could also be the result of several other elements related to flexibility, strength, or structure. Kotkaniemi’s ankle flexion, his ability to advance his knee over his toes or further at the start of a push, has improved in the time since he was drafted, even if he still tends to hunch over.
He also used to tilt his hips and pelvis forward, which raised his backside and accentuated the forward lean, but from what I saw in the exhibition game, that also seems to have largely improved, giving him a bit more straight-line speed.
Lastly, we have body rotation.
He over-rotates the left side of his body as he skates up ice, mostly because he insists on holding his stick with two hands. Most skaters hold it with just the one to free their movement. This two-handed grip makes Kotkaniemi over rotate the left side of his body on left-skate pushes. He then expends energy unrotating on right-skate pushes. The constant twisting, untwisting motion creates noise in the upper-body, a kind of up-and-down movement that sends his momentum in multiple directions instead of where he wants to go — forward.
Better skaters keep their shoulders leveled and squared to their direction of travel as much as possible to direct their full momentum in front of them.
This video will hopefully help you visualize everything I explained above. It starts with a look at Kotkaniemi’s stride in his draft year and then breaks down his current one.
Even considering the elements he accomplishes well in his strides, like bending his knees to 90 degrees and the slight improvements to his form in the past two years, the centreman’s current stride still prevents him from using his full strength. As he can’t load his skates properly, he loses power. He can still gain speed from added muscle mass, but not as much as a skater with better form.
Hypothetically, let’s say he only transfers 85% of his potential power in pushing force. If he improves his strength, it gives him more a powerful stride to increase speed, but not to the same extent as a Paul Byron, who strides almost perfectly and can therefore transfer more of his strength into momentum— let’s say 97% of it for the sake of the example.
Kotkaniemi’s form also limits his acceleration. As in his forward stride, he can’t recover his knees or skates under his shoulder properly after pushes. He sprints wide, which diminishes his forward momentum.
A wide stride also affects crossovers. It becomes harder for Kotkaniemi to transition from a forward push to crossing his feet, as, again, he doesn’t load his legs properly. The outside edge of the skate doesn’t reach fully under him as he begins the cross, which limits his momentum, the extension of his pushing leg, then his ability to bring back his outside edge under him, which reduces his extension, and the momentum, which again limits the reach of his outside edge.... As a result, Kotkaniemi often hops in his crossovers.
Skating is a balance between many elements. When one placement is off, another one also falls slightly incorrectly and then another and another. The whole structure can correct itself sub-optimally to remain standing and functioning, but it becomes less and less stable. That structure might not face any problem in open ice where powerful, destabilizing shocks are rare. But in tight quarters, patrolled by giant, ramming defenders? It crumbles.
By elevating himself and hanging his weight forward, placing it on his toes, Kotkaniemi exposes himself to thrusts from opponents. He has no room for shock absorption; the slightest shove from behind sends him to the ice.
Better puck-protectors bend their limbs. They get lower and centre their weight over their edges to dig them deep in the ice, forming a solid, adaptable structure. Like Phillip Danault at the end of the video below. They resist shocks with their ability to consistently adjust slightly forward or backward. Their strong centre of mass allows them to absorb shocks without collapsing, which then enables them to shield the puck, manipulate and escape defenders.
By improving his skating form and his stride mechanics, rather than just working to add muscle mass, Kotkaniemi could unlock the added strength. He would increase his stability, his speed, his agility, and his explosiveness.
But there are many more reasons to work on stride technique and posture. Skating is the foundation of the whole game. It affects:
- Puck-protection skills
- Stickhandling precision
- Manipulation abilities
- Rush patterns
- Energy level
- Mental processing ability
- And many, many more elements.
A simple wrong edge placement or a lack of ankle flexion can affect the rest of the skating mechanics, but also make a player miss a teammate or a defensive assignment or a shot late in a shift because of the added physical and mental strain of having to work through a sub-optimal form to catch up to the previous plays. A good form conserves and transfers energy; a bad one loses energy, and takes fuel that could be used to make better plays.
In the last few years, we saw a lot of prospects in the Montreal organization come and go with no change to their skating form. Is the organization really doing all it can to improve the game of their prospects?
A habit that has been ingrained by thousands, hundred of thousands of repetition is incredibly hard to change. Sometimes a genetic problem or an injury prevents a player from ever achieving a perfect skating form. But all young skaters that pass through a franchise with pockets as deep as Montreal should be at least matched with a skating coach capable of overseeing their development and transforming them into the best skater they can become.
But let’s put on the brakes before we make a wrong conclusion. However important skating remains to Kotkaniemi’s development, it is not what will propel him to a top-six centre role.
Improving his skating would facilitate his development path, and the Habs should absolutely invest in honing and monitoring that facet of his game, but it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that the forward takes his rightful place at the top of the lineup in the next few years even without much improvement in speed, explosiveness, or agility because of his ability to read the game. If his skating stride doesn’t give him a leg up on the competition, his processing speed will.