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Investigating the steady pre-season progression of Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Kotkaniemi is improving with every game and is starting to show the good elements of his play, with and without the puck.

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored his first goal in a Habs uniform on Monday, a one-timer while failing to one knee that flew right past the goalie and into the top of the net. It was closely followed by the eruption of the Bell Centre.

For many, this was the sign that Kotkaniemi had arrived. After some needed time to adjust to the different pace of the game, a first glimpse of the large potential of the third overall pick for Montreal last June.

But the highly touted prospect distinguished himself with more than his goal on Monday.

What is the most impressive from Kotkaniemi is how fast he seems to learn. He came into rookie camp wanting to use his stickhandling — a skill which not many players can rival him in on the ice — to get through the opposing defence and in position to create scoring chances. Unfortunately, we saw that it was often unsuccessful with the reduced space and the fast young players he was up against.

From game to game, the improvements were there for the centre. He got better in the second contest of the weekend, managed some promising things in the intra-squad scrimmage and even more in the first pre-season game.

In a lot of ways, Kotkaniemi now showed that his game is mature beyond what we see from many prospects his age, even highly drafted ones. Away from the puck, he is often found in a good position, in between his man and the net, and he seems to have little problem recognizing his coverage. He supports his defenders and his long reach serves him well to strip the puck from unsuspecting opponents.

He isn’t overly eager to jump on the attack, but is patient in his defence. He stops in his zone to wait for the right opportunity to attempt the breakout, and also shows that he can recognize when a play is lost to start his backcheck ahead of the opposing rush.

On the offensive side of the game, Kotkaniemi’s creativity has started to shine through. When others would simply give the puck to the first open teammate they see or get it on net against heavy defensive presence, the centre is now challenging defenders and finding ways around the coverage like he displayed many times in his draft year.

The following video analyzes multiple interesting sequences from Kotkaniemi in Monday’s game, showcasing his improvements and the little things he managed to do well across his multiple shifts.

Right now, all we can hope for is that he continues to show this upward curve in his play. He isn’t asked to fill a full-time role in the NHL as soon as this season, but seeing that he gets closer to that level every time he steps on the ice is encouraging.

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