With the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens selected Finnish forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Playing for Ässät in Liiga, the top Finnish league, the young forward compiled 10 goals and 19 assists in 57 games this past season. While playing in his home league, his point totals are comparable to recent top pick Jesse Puljujärvi, Sebastian Aho, and current Canadien Artturi Lehkonen.
While playing almost entirely as a winger in Liiga play, Kotkaniemi also has experience down the middle, primarily among his peers in under-18 play. He’s a very capable offensive star in his own right, even while facing higher levels of competition. He possesses a variety of shots, and can set up plays just as well as he finishes them.
A heavy shot is just a small part of his arsenal in the offensive end, he’s very good at finding the quiet areas of the ice and striking when teams lose track of him. Rarely seen without his stick on the ice. Kotkaniemi is constantly in motion trying to make plays happen, with and without the puck.
While his skating isn’t going to hurt his development, it isn’t his strongest asset overall, but with a 6’2’’ frame and good hands he’s more than capable of finding ways to handle defensive pressure. He’s smart, and will use that as opposed to brute physicality to outwork defenders in open ice and along the boards.
He’ll need a little bit of time to develop, especially if he’s going to shift to centre full time, but the Canadiens have added a dynamic piece that also fills a dire need within the organization.
A rangy forward, he’s got the reputation as a player who can get things done. Not an elite skater, but he still manages to threaten offensively. Even though he’s not flashy, he’s hard on pucks, and when he ramps up his intensity he can overwhelm defenders with his size and smarts. His passing ability is strong. Handling the puck, he can make plays in traffic or drive hard to the net.
A big smart centre who has experienced success at a young age in Liiga and has proven himself on the big stage with two standout performances at the u-18 World Championships. Kotkaniemi is foremost a smarts and skills prospect, both traits that require multiple looks to fully appreciate. He has impressive offensive vision and can be counted on to almost always make the right decision under pressure.
The total package with terrific vision and passing skills. Highly competitive, physically strong and defensively reliable. Skating needs some work, but it won’t hold him back in the NHL.
Bob McKenzie: #5
Corey Pronman: #4
Future Considerations: #13
Hockey Prospect: #8
ISS Hockey: #16
NHL Central Scouting: #6 (European skaters)
In Kotkaniemi the Canadiens acquired arguably the best centre in the draft this year, even if he isn’t there full time yet. He has a two-year deal in Finland with his club currently, and with his draft status he doesn’t have to sign an entry-level deal until 2022. If the Canadiens are committing to a rebuild, or restocking prospect, they have time to be patient with Kotkaniemi. His comparisons to Aleksander Barkov are tantalizing, and with some work on his skating the Habs may have found a key piece for their future teams.
The last time the Habs drafted a Finnish centre early in a draft they claimed Saku Koivu, who went on to captain the team for most of a decade.