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The Canadiens are in a no-lose situation with Jesperi Kotkaniemi

The 2018 first-round pick has given the Canadiens an extremely difficult choice to make this pre-season.

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

When the Montreal Canadiens brought Jesperi Kotkaniemi over from Liiga to give him a run this pre-season in the rookie showcase and NHL camp before making a decision, many assumed he’d get a decent look, and then he’d head back to Ässät to play as their star young centre this year as he continues to develop his game.

Then something fantastic happened: Kotkaniemi just kept forcing the issue and grew in leaps and bounds in every game he played. He had a nervous affair against the Ottawa Senators’ rookie squad in the Rookie Showdown, before playing miles better against Toronto in the next game.

Then, the competition was rookie teams, but against the New Jersey Devils in his first actual game as a pro in North America, he took another step forward, grabbing his first goal in a Habs uniform in the pre-season contest.

He was handed a golden opportunity when Max Domi was suspending for punching Aaron Ekblad. With Domi ruled out for the remainder of the pre-season, a hole opened up in the Canadiens roster. It was Kotkaniemi who became a lineup staple in his absence.

Not only has he been in the lineup on a nightly basis, he’s playing big minutes, especially in his latest outing against a powerhouse Toronto Maple Leafs squad. Lining him up with Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen, the Canadiens coaching staff clearly believed he was capable of such a role, and once again he didn’t disappoint.

He grabbed another point with a fantastic setup that led to a Brendan Gallagher goal, and he did it while staring down a Leafs team that trotted out John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Nazem Kadri. In the three-and-a-half minutes he played at five-on-five against Tavares, the 18-year-old posted an 80% Corsi-for percentage; four shot attempts for compared to just one against from Tavares.

In that shared time, Kotkaniemi had three scoring chances and two high-danger opportunities of his own, while Tavares had just one and none, respectively.

He impressed more than just fans last night. Head coach Claude Julien had nothing but praise, saying it’s likely going to be hard to keep him off the roster to start the year.

And that suits the Canadiens just fine, because regardless of their choice with him, there is no bad move to be made.

The most likely plan in the minds of many was to give him his trial run, and let him head back to Finland to play in Liiga as a full-time centre. It would give him more time to adjust to the professional game at a new position with the familiarity of playing for his father, and in his home country. He would also become the focal point for the Finnish Under-20 team at the World Junior Hockey Championship as well, which would serve as a huge feather in his cap going forward.

This is of course still an option if Montreal wants to give him a nine-game trial and then send him back, knowing he’s going to be more than ready the following year.

It’s unclear where exactly the Canadiens are at overall this year, but if they’re going to struggle a bit, saving a year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract is a smart move. As long as he plays fewer than 10 NHL games, the contract will slide a year, giving Montreal flexibility in the future.

It will also slide if he goes to the AHL as well, where he would be playing with a Laval Rocket team loaded with veteran AHL stars and restocked with plenty of prospects. Adding Kotkaniemi to that roster immediately makes them one of the most dangerous in the AHL, and with a great prospect coach in Joël Bouchard behind the bench, Kotkaniemi would be in good hands as he grows as a player.

Finally — and becoming more likely each game — there’s the option of just leaving him in the NHL for this season. With Domi out of the lineup, Kotkaniemi has more than earned his spot. He leads all forwards in five-on-five ice time, and has a sparkling 60% Corsi-for percentage in the games he’s played. He’s proven he can play effectively at the top level.

He’s forcing Montreal to ice their best roster, and that may include Domi being shifted to the wing when he returns to let Kotkaniemi stay at centre.

If the rookie struggles or looks like he needs improvement in some areas, then there are the above options available to him and the Canadiens.

Truly, there is no bad option for the Montreal Canadiens when it comes to Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s 2018-19 destination. Each option available has positives and next to no downside.

The rookie deserves a mountain of praise for forcing the hand of the Canadiens’ staff with his strong play this pre-season. It’s the most interesting storyline for the team in camp, and is serving as a bright spot after a summer that had its moments of uncertainty.