A terrible season in 2017-18 at least gave the Montreal Canadiens the chance at an extraordinary consolation prize. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a prospect unlike most the Habs system has seen in recent years. He is now part of the foundation upon which the organization wishes to build.
We have seen many prospects come and go in the Habs system, with several drafted every year. The highlights are usually filled with wow moments that fill you with the hope of having found greatness; the only thing standing in the way is the player finding the consistency necessary to pull off his best plays every game.
The difference with Kotkaniemi is that on every other shift something interesting happens on the ice. As he progresses and establishes himself more and more as a dominant presence, a lot of words could be written on a single game, and it would look like the highlights over a few weeks for an average prospect.
It’s important to manage expectations when talking about any young hockey player, even special ones like Kotkaniemi, who are not without flaws, but it’s hard not to get excited at the perspective of what he already is right now and, most of all, what he could become.
Looking at the voting, it’s pretty clear that I’m among the first to struggle at containing that excitement. I placed Kotkaniemi the highest out of all the writers, valuing upside slightly more, though it’s a perception that falls somewhat in line with the EOTP community.
My opinion is that there won’t be many inherent roadblocks on his path to the NHL. I see a high chance of him at least reaching the contribution level of many Habs youngsters right now, the question is more where he will top out.
There were other panellists who aren’t quite convinced about his abilities. Kotkaniemi receiving votes as low as 10, but the prospect is only in his first few days in the organization, and more established talent ahead of him gives him a large range in the voting.
Kotkaniemi has soft hands. He is precise, agile, and intelligent in his stickhandling. He plays the puck in a deliberate manner, placing it where it will best help him realize his next play. He is not an over-handler like many with the ability to shuffle the puck at blazing speed, but is simply efficient.
This clip from team Finland’s selection camp this summer will give you a good idea of how great of a handler he is.
The centre is coming in as support behind a teammate skating back to the blue line. Unfortunately, the puck is slid back to him on the wrong side of his body.
The majority of players in that situation would have angled themselves to receive this pass on their backhand, turning their body and their back to the play. Not Kotkaniemi.
Instead, he just uses the curve of his blade to deflect the puck to his forehand in an area where he can now attack the slot; a difficult move. This way, in one quick motion he forces the opposing defender who is flat-footed in front of the net to come up to challenge him.
Kotkaniemi doesn’t try to immediately stickhandle around the opponent. Instead, he is patient and keeps the puck on his forehand for a second, threatening both as a shooter and a passer, freezing the defender.
The pass he ultimately made was the start of a tic-tac-toe play that necessitated a great save from the goalie.
He can also go through defenders when it’s necessary. He shows how quick his hands can move in possession when he is challenged by multiple opponents. Even when he loses the puck, it rarely feels the opposition has gained the ability to orchestrate a clear breakout off of his turnover. Kotkaniemi is great at stealing it back and making plays happen off of second chances, taking advantage of a disorganized defence.
Kotkaniemi is, at his core, a playmaker. He thinks quickly and is always prepared to find teammates in scoring area through the opposing defensive structure. But more and more, it seems like his ability to create is a level above a simple passing ability.
The ridiculous spin pass above involved being aware of the position of his teammate, being able to gain body positioning over the defender, and, most of all, an ability to execute the one-touch feed on a puck that arrived behind him. With three defenders ready to collapse on him, if it was any average player, this play would have likely been aborted or ended up being an awkward shot on net.
Kotkaniemi doesn't only show his playmaking chops against competition his age, either. The few pre-season games he played this summer were host to some great displays by the prospect.
This sequence encompasses a lot of the aforementioned talents of Kotkaniemi: his ability to create space for others, his skilled hands, and the second effort he often displays to make scoring chances happen.
He was also used with Ässät as the main pivot on the man advantage. The team was often trying to create a setup play where the puck gets to a forward sitting on the goal line to have him instantly redirect a pass to the front of the net for a tap-in.
His job was to open up the passing lane to this forward on the goal line. The play was getting pretty obvious for the other team as the game went on, but Kotkaniemi kept finding ways to get the puck where it needed to go anyway, recording an assist when the setup was finally converted.
He was achieving this by remaining deceptive in his handling, advancing inside the defensive box, challenging defenders, and freezing them by threatening to shoot.
Part of why Kotkaniemi is effective on the half-wall with a man advantage is that the opposing teams have to respect his release, not just his passing ability. He fires quickly and drops his body into his shots, making them quite powerful.
Credit: NHL prospects
Kotkaniemi played his entire 207-18 Liiga season on the wing, as is very often the case for youngsters in professional leagues. But there is no doubt that he can be a very effective centre.
Playing in the middle comes down to having a good work ethic, awareness, and patience on the ice. Some players are more suited to it than others, but a player with those qualities can usually find success at the position.
In his draft year, he had no problem transitioning to centre while playing internationally. He looked very comfortable there, being a contributor for his team on both sides of the ice. He was, for the most part, positionally sound, and showed that he could anticipate and cut opposing passes to orchestrate the breakout hold his own in board battles.
Finland’s play was funneled through him every time he was on the ice and he easily did what every good centre is called upon to do: support his teammates all over the ice.
His defensive play has not been perfected yet. At the beginning of his draft year, like many junior-aged players, there were times where he was too absorbed by the puck to appropriately cover his man, leading to some good scoring chances for the other team on cross-ice passes. It got better as the season went on, but he will still need an adjustment period as he transitions to playing centre against professionals, when you can’t lose your focus at all in the defensive zone.
Kotkaniemi will also need to get stronger to be more effective along the boards, with and without the puck. He just turned 18 a month ago and was one of the youngest players in the 2018 draft class, so there is still room for him to grow into his body, even more than many other drafted prospects considering the age factor.
In his offensive game, it will be important for Kotkaniemi to keep improving in his playmaking ability and remain diverse in the plays he attempts. As he encounters better and better defenders, the tricks he pulled off against under-20 players won’t work as well. He will need to continue to find ways to create.
If he returns to Liiga, it will be expected of him that he ups his production of last season in a significant way to confirm that he is the rapidly improving player that Montreal saw and selected with their third overall pick.
The main weakness in Kotkaniemi’s kit is his skating ability. How much he can improve this aspect of his game will play a crucial part in his future. He can pack \some speed and is relatively quick, but, it would be much easier to project him playing against the top competition in the NHL if he could better fly around the ice.
Since it is such an important element of the prospect game, a second article analyzing Kotkaniemi’s skating in detail will be coming out later today.
When asked to project Kotkaniemi, Trevor Timmins played it safe. He talked about seeing the prospect as a top-two centre for the Habs in the future.
It’s easy to understand why a head scout wouldn’t want to pencil him into a top-line role immediately. It is definitely within the reach of Kotkaniemi in a few years, however, even if the upward curve in his development is observed, only time will tell.
The most optimistic view is for Kotkaniemi to get into overdrive come training camp and immediately push for a spot in the Habs lineup, or at least get an extended look. But I don’t expect that from him.
It’s true that he played in a men’s league last season, but Liiga is not the NHL. The pace and physicality are different. It’s a lot more likely that after showing glimpses of his high-level talent while spending time over in North America, Kotkaniemi is sent back to play for Ässät to act as their top-line center. It’s something he has already started doing as of this summer.
This series of events wouldn’t take anything away from the prospect that Kotkaniemi is. He is a highly intelligent player who relies on his game sense to dominate, and it will probably take time for him to get synced up to progressively higher and higher levels of hockey.
It’s not what happens in the next few months that matters for the prospect, it’s how his development can be best served. The talent is there, and above all else, it is important to nurture it.