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2018 NHL Draft prospect profile: Jesperi Kotkaniemi could be the top centre available

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Kotkaniemi is a skilled all-around offensive player who has had a lot of success centring the top line of Finland's U18 team.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi has elevated himself to a top pick on most draft boards with the great season he had in Liiga. He recorded 0.51 points per game, putting himself in the company of other great U18 players in the history of the league; youngters who became immediate contributors upon joining their club. Recent comparables are Jesse Puljujärvi, Sebastian Aho and, closer to home, Artturi Lehkonen.

Birthplace: Pori, Finland
Shoots: Left
Position: C/W
Height: 6’2”
Weight: 190 lbs.
Pro team: Ässät, Liiga

Added to the impact he had for Ässät, Kotkaniemi has been making a name for himself in international tournaments. He is currently having a great performance in the IIHF U18 World championship with seven points in six games ahead of today’s Gold Medal Game appearance, and had also made an impression in the Five Nations tournament earlier this year.

Image credit: Elite Prospects

The Finnish player is both a goal-scorer and a playmaker, depending on the situation. He has a great shot, can beat goalies in a variety of ways, and routinely finds quiet ice away from defenders for his releases.

His latest goal at the U18 tournament was on a precise one-timer he fired from his back foot that flew right to the top of the net.

He can also set up his teammates very well and has a good vision of the ice. He is not one to throw away the puck in unrealistic attempts, but will take the time to look for scoring plays.

Kotkaniemi loves having the puck on his stick and is often seen circling around the offensive zone, especially with a man advantage, wanting to make something happen. He possesses an excellent passing ability and can use a multitude of subtle misdirections to shake defenders and feed the puck to his teammates.

One of his common tricks is looking off target, making it seem like he's about to shoot, only to switch his hand at the last second to turn a shooting motion into a pass, getting the puck over to one of his wingers for a one-timer.

He is a skilled puck-handler — one of the best in the draft — and he uses his stickhandling to keep defenders at bay while he looks for teammates. He can also hold is own in heavy traffic along the boards using multiple moves to come out with possession, enabling his team to attack the net.

Kotkaniemi is 6'2'', but he does not employ much of a physical element in his play, and rarely overpowers opponents. Instead, he protects the puck by outsmarting defenders and keeping them guessing as to what he wants to do next. He is an agile player, and it makes him a slippery opponent to attempt to contain.

That being said, is overall skating ability isn't a strength. Kotkaniemi, through his hunched-over stance, has a good top speed and edgework, and he can also accelerate well enough to reach and battle for loose pucks. But this is still the one aspect of his game that prevents him from being one of the elite talents in the 2018 NHL Draft, as he can't compete with the majority of those projected to go in the top 10 in how freely they move on the ice.

However, Kotkaniemi receives a boost in the rankings because he has demonstrated that he is at ease centring Finland's U18 top line. He is responsible defensively, and continuously involved below the dots to help the Finnish defence. He is also capable of some great defensive reads and can steal possession to immediately create scoring chances for his team.

Rankings

ISS Hockey: 18
Future Considerations: 17
McKeen’s Hockey: 14
NHL Central Scouting (EU Skaters): 6
Hockey Prospect: 10

Thoughts

Even if he spent more time on the wing in his first pro season, not unlike other young players making their debut, Kotkaniemi could very likely end up being the top centre in the draft.

He has shown more skill than Joe Veleno while possessing a similar ability to read the game. His skating is not on the same level as the QMJHL prospect, but the superior offensive talent of Kotkaniemi gives him a considerable edge.

With some work to improve his speed and acceleration, the Finnish player could be a real force down the middle for any NHL team, featuring on one of the top two lines for years to come.

If the Habs were to acquire another first-round pick to go with their third overall selection, Kotkaniemi would be a logical target for them to bolster their centre pipeline.

He is one of the youngest players available, having played the entirety of his draft season as a 17-year-old, and could easily explode in 2018-19, especially considering the experience he acquired playing in a top league. He will no doubt be used in a larger role next year, and that’s something that would contribute to his development.