The Montreal Canadiens won the lottery for the third overall pick on April 28, moving up one spot from the fourth position that finishing 28th in the league standings initially garnered them. It put the organization in a great position to add a top prospect from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
There is no doubt that Rasmus Dahlin (picked by the Buffalo Sabres) and Andrei Svechnikov (Carolina Hurricanes) will be gone by the time the Canadiens are put on the clock, but they will have a selection of several top-quality prospects still on the board.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi was not seen as an option when the Canadiens won the third overall selection. In fact, it was a foregone conclusion that they would be picking Filip Zadina. But crazy things happen when you’re talking about teenagers.
Kotkaniemi, who was in a group of centres with Joe Veleno, Barrett Hayton, and fellow Finn Rasmus Kupari, distanced himself from the pack and became a consensus top-10 prospect. Then, after a tremendous World Under-18’s where he won a gold medal, he became a top-five prospect on many boards.
Kotkaniemi is one of the younger players in the class, and much of his improvement as the year went on could be tied to that. He was later to develop, and his inclusion in the third overall conversation seemed forced two months ago.
A lot of people thought Kotkaniemi was being mentioned as a top three prospect simply because he was the top centre available and the Canadiens needed a centre, but what started along that vein switched in the last month. Only four rankings have him outside of the top 10 and those all came in the first few weeks of the draft season. There are as many rankings that have him in the top five.
There is still a perception that Kotkaniemi would be an off-the-board selection at third overall but that is no longer the case.
Kotkaniemi is a prospect that seems to have it all. He’s 6’2”, he has a shot, and he plays centre. He has a hockey IQ that is among the best in the class. His skating is not the best, but it doesn’t hold him back and his positioning is so good it doesn’t hurt his game on either end of the ice.
The questions come from how good you think he will be offensively at the next level. He will likely never be a candidate for the Art Ross trophy, but he does have enough offensive upside to be a centre on a top line in the NHL. Comparisons to Anze Kopitar have come up, but that would be an absolute best case scenario. Think of the comparisons more of the style of play rather than a direct comparison to how Kotkaniemi will turn out.
This past season, Kotkaniemi played in the top division of Finnish men’s hockey. With Ässät in the Liiga, Kotkaniemi put up 10 goals and 19 assists in 57 games. He was also a minus-1 which is impressive for someone who will only turn 18 next month. He added one assist in seven playoff games.
But even though he is projected to be a centre at the next level, he did play the wing this season. I want to be clear: This is not meant to be an indictment of his game nor of his ability to play centre. I feel, like so many others, he can play centre at the professional level. But when we look at his statistics in the Liiga this past year, they came on the wing.
The numbers were still impressive. While the point total doesn’t jump out at you, he did finish third in the team in scoring in a league where scoring is low overall. The two players ahead of him were 10 years older than him, as were many of the players behind him.
Perhaps the biggest knock on Kotkaniemi is that he will require time before being able to play in the NHL. When you pick a player in the top three, you would like to have some sort of immediate impact.
Even Kopitar required a full year in Europe after being drafted before playing in the NHL. Kotkaniemi could use a year at centre and that will be how he will spend next season.
The question is where will he do it? The Canadiens, if they draft him, will likely bring him to development camp where he would go up against the organization’s prospects. From there, they could decide to bring him to training camp and see him next to NHL players. The issue with that is that the European season will start. You do not want to waste precious weeks of development if you will just send him back after a few games.
Another option would be to have him play in the American Hockey League. Because he will be drafted from Europe, he would not need to play in the CHL and can be sent to the minor leagues. Having him play centre under Joël Bouchard in Laval wouldn’t be the worst place for him to develop and he wouldn’t burn a year of his entry-level contract. However, being under the microscope may be a detractor.
Kotkaniemi has a strong skill set defensively that makes him look like a “safe” pick, but while he does have a low floor, he does have the offensive upside you want in a top prospect. He is able to see the game very well and he has a shot that will beat goaltenders at the next level.
Rumours have the Canadiens interested in trading down, likely to pick Kotkaniemi. If they don’t find a suitor, or are scared they will lose the opportunity to draft him, he is an option at third overall. And it wouldn’t be as big of a reach as people thought almost two months ago.
The Canadiens’ draft will likely be defined by Kotkaniemi, whether Montreal drafts him or not. If they take him, they are betting on him to succeed. If they don’t take him, they are betting on him to fall short of expectations. If they take a defenceman or winger and Kotkaniemi turns out to be a top centre, it would be a hit to the organization, even if the player they do pick works out.
Views from across SB Nation
“His hockey IQ is off the charts, seeming to always make those little plays that don’t always show up on the score sheet.” [Broad Street Hockey]
“The next great Finn may be Jesperi Kotkaniemi. He has shot up draft boards over the course of this season and will likely go in the top half of the first round.” [Jackets Cannon]
“The Finnish player is a goal-scorer, a playmaker, a powerplay quarterback and a penalty killer. We say all the time that players can perform in “all situations”, but that is particularly true about Kotkaniemi.” [Mile High Hockey]
Read more on the draft-eligible prospects in SB Nation’s draft hub.
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