A year ago at this time, no one imagined that Jesperi Kotkaniemi would spend the entire season at the NHL level. He ended up doing just that, and although he may have not had the stamina to last an entire NHL season, he should be expected to come out strong to avoid a sophomore slump.
Birthplace: Pori, Finland
Date of birth: July 6, 2000
Drafted: 2018 (3rd overall)
Weight: 187 lbs.
Team: Montreal Canadiens (NHL)
Kotkaniemi made his debut in a Canadiens uniform at Development Camp, about a week after being drafted by the team. By the end of that, he would have his entry-level contract before turning 18 years old. He would come back to Montreal for rookie camp.
In his first camp game against the Ottawa Senators, Brady Tkachuk — who was drafted one pick after him — beat him to a puck and scored a goal. You could hear the air leave Place Bell, despite the fact it was a meaningless exhibition game before the actual pre-season even started.
After the game, Kotkaniemi, still getting acclimated to the Montreal hockey media, was almost annoyed by the attention. But he said something that set the tone for the rest of his season: “I will get better every day.”
Quite simply? He did exactly that. He went from a player looking like he needed development before even thinking of the NHL, to being the youngest player in the league providing his team with positive value.
It was a relatively healthy season for Kotkaniemi, missing only three games in his first NHL season. The games he missed were mostly due to rest at the end of the season, however he did undergo knee surgery after the season ended.
The votes for Kotkaniemi were mixed but consistent with six out of the 13 panelists putting him in the top spot. Five others had him at the number two spot, with the other votes at #3 and #5.
I thought long and hard about putting him at the top spot. But in the end, I couldn’t put him ahead of Max Domi. The Finn may one day lead the team in scoring and be the team’s top centre but I can’t put him over Domi even if his potential may have him there some day.
Justin: When Kotkaniemi was drafted, I was one of many who expected him to need at least a year or two more in Finland learning the ins and outs of the centre position before being ready to play in the NHL. His performance at rookie camp last year seemed to confirm that development path. Yet the month of September came with rapid growth, and it was truly incredible to watch him develop from a short-term project into a roster player in such a short period of time.
I was happily surprised by what I witnessed from Max Domi last season, but the quick learning shown by the youngest player in the league suggests there are lofty heights in Kotkaniemi’s future. I think he has the aptitude to become an elite 200-foot player in the NHL, and wouldn’t part with him in favour of any other member of the organization under 25 years of age for that reason.
Julian: I was really impressed with Kotkaniemi’s poise and skill in his rookie season. He didn’t make many mistakes at his position, unlike many other young players at his age. I once said the Canadiens could afford to take their time with him and not have him in the lineup so soon. If it weren’t for his body being run down in the second half of the season because he had played so much from the summer prior, he might’ve had a more productive rookie season. I know Habs fans are salivating at Cole Caufield, but Kotkaniemi is, for now, closer to his potential. As long as the team stays the course with him at centre, and there’s no reason for them to go away, he should be a fine player for years to come.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Kotkaniemi made his debut on the Top 25 Under 25 at #6 last season as voters figured that he wouldn’t make an impact at the NHL. He proved them wrong and that was why he moved up four spots this year.
History of #2
The key to Kotkaniemi’s early success is his play in the defensive zone. Unlike other young centres whose games go from the offensive zone back and can take time to adjust to the centre position, Kotkaniemi’s game goes the other way around. To play centre as the youngest player in the league for a team in the top half of the league as well as he did is remarkable in its own right.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have offensive skill. That’s why he went third overall and why he’s so high in these rankings. The potential is there for him to one day be a top line centre in the NHL. Mixed with his defensive responsibility, you have a potential star on your hands.
His instincts in the offensive zone are just so good. You saw it in his time in Finland where he would be a few steps ahead with the puck on his stick and it transferred to the NHL. He would make plays and set up his teammates for easy goals.
Kotkaniemi with a great effort around the net, and Lehkonen has his fifth goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/BlqgGoKJPr— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) December 5, 2018
While he has good offensive instincts and playmaking skills, he also has a good shot and he would be better served to use it more often. He has said this off-season that he may need to be more selfish in the offensive zone. When he did display his shot, it was a thing of beauty.
Minty Fresh from Jesperi Kotkaniemi pic.twitter.com/agdtDSfNOA— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 8, 2019
The Finn looks like he has gotten stronger, and that’s another positive as his strength wasn’t quite up to par against tougher opponents. Between that, and improved fitness after learning what he needs to improve through the rigours of an NHL season the youngster had some work to do this summer.
His knee surgery in April had a short recovery process and shouldn’t have interrupted his off-season training significantly.
After a season where he was the youngest player in the league, you’d think that Kotkaniemi has nowhere to go but up, but development is not always as linear as that.
Having said that, most high picks who play in the league at 18 can see a jump in their second season, but it may not be a significant one for Kotkaniemi. He will have a tough time battling for ice time with Max Domi and Phillip Danault, so increased offence may come from the power play.
Kotkaniemi showing improvement with things like strength and fitness will be huge for his development because his skillset is already pretty well rounded. He’s a smart player and there’s not much doubt of his ability to make adjustments on the ice.
He may enter the season in the same role he started a year ago, but there’s a good chance that he doesn’t end there, and if he does, there should be other ways to see his development.