It wasn’t the start that Jesperi Kotkaniemi wanted to have in his first game in Montreal, but it was just that: a start.
“Maybe not my best night tonight,” Kotkaniemi said after the 4-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators at Place Bell on Friday night. “I think it will take a little bit of time to get used to it, it’s a bit different than in Finland but I will catch it.”
The third overall pick in June’s NHL Draft was among the players most people wanted to see to catch a glimpse of the player for the first time. But for Laval Rocket and Montreal Canadiens rookie team head coach Joël Bouchard, it’s what he said after the game that impressed him most.
“Honesty. Evaluation,” Bouchard said about what impressed him about Kotkaniemi when told that he said he struggled a bit. “He didn’t beat around the bush, he said it. Obviously it’s an adjustment for him like it is everybody else but right there, that impresses me. You telling me that he said ‘yeah, I struggled a bit in some part of my game’, that’s great. When a guy is aware of the way he plays we’re heading in the right direction.”
“We’re not surprised [about Kotkaniemi struggling] because it’s a reality,” Bouchard said. “A player coming over to North America for the first time and he has to adapt to the style of play first, the smaller rink but that’s the reality.”
It was the latest part in the whirlwind that Kotkaniemi has faced since being selected in Dallas. He has had development camp in Montreal, workouts and exhibition games in Finland, and now rookie camp before he heads to the main training camp next week.
Kotkaniemi was quick to point out that this is still summer hockey and that everything he is going through right now is necessary to get to where he wants to be when the real season starts.
“The game is much faster,” Kotkaniemi said about the smaller ice surface. Friday’s game was just the fourth time he has played on the small ice surface in his life, in his estimation, and the first at the professional level. “I need to be more ready. Situations come in faster, you need to predict the future, what will happen next.”
“It was hard today. It’s getting easier,” he said.
And that was something that many Canadiens were going through in a game where 13 players on the Senators had North American professional experience compared to just two in Montreal’s lineup.
“Our guys faced an enormous amount of adversity,” Bouchard said. “We faced a team that was a lot more mature, had more experience and our guys strapped in and really progressed through the game. For me, the third period was our best. The young guys made mistakes in the first and in the second and the same thing happened to the same player later in the game and they didn’t make it again. This is what this camp is for for our young rookies. It’s to live experiences. What I told them is that they never gave up. It was never a lack of effort. It was a lack of experience.”
“But throughout the game, we progressed and it doesn’t define them as hockey players. We overcame adversity. The stage, we had no AHL players… They key is that we didn’t give up. A game where you give up ends eight or nine to nothing. The guys were aware to not let that happen and I respect that.”
The coach was quick to pump the brakes on reading too much into anything that goes on this weekend.
“Right now we don’t want to go too deep in evaluation,” Bouchard said. “We have to back off and understand everybody’s here, we’re all excited. We’re seeing some of the kids signed, drafted for the first time. It’s one viewing with a bunch of kids together that never really played together who have zero experience in the AHL. For every player there was some good, some bad.”
As for Kotkaniemi, the flashes were there. He fanned on a one-timer on the power play from the right circle in one play (“It’s summer season so I’m not worried about it,” he said about that play), and he admits to maybe trying to do too much once he got off to a slow start.
“Of course,” he said. “Things weren’t going too well so you try to do things.”
He also said it was hard to get used to players he never played with before, and after the injury to Jake Evans, and even before that, his linemates were always changing.
“He can play hockey. That’s for sure,” Bouchard said about Kotkaniemi. “You don’t get drafted third overall hiding some things that nobody saw. Everybody agrees he’s a good hockey player but he’s a young kid.
“Like all the young players who are drafted, even if they are drafted earlier they are still in the process of becoming a hockey player and becoming a really good NHL hockey player. It takes time and it takes experience. But I think what I’m most happy at is I thought he fought through it and we need to back off right now. He needs to grow, he’s a young kid whose filling himself up and I agree he’s got hockey sense and we just need to let him be, let him play through the process and he’s going to be fine, but we need to let it be.”
He said that any experience, even in games like Friday’s, will happen along the path of development, but that it’s not the game that is the end goal.
“It comes down sometimes to experience, ability, strength, age, so you could tell that a couple of players on the other side have mileage under their belt in this league. But I’m glad we’re going through this. Think about what we can do over the next 24 hours and the next game on Sunday and then we’re building what we’re trying to achieve. That’s where we’re at. We’re not going for the Stanley Cup today. We’re playing to get these guys experience. And they got it. Good.”