Jesperi Kotkaniemi came into the Montreal Canadiens organization with high expectations after being the third overall pick in 2018. He had a bit of a downward trend during the 2019-20 regular season, but he bounced back with a very strong post-season run.
Kotkaniemi dealt with some injuries, and never could get his footing in his second NHL season. The setback led to him being sent down to the Laval Rocket, and the stint in the AHL turned his season around. His 13 points in 13 AHL games saw him turning a corner, before his year was presumed over with an injury.
As we know, his season was far from over. COVID-19 shook things up to the extent that the 24th-place Canadiens made the post-season, where they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the first round. Kotkaniemi played his most inspired hockey in a Canadiens jersey yet, scoring four goals in 10 games and showing the potential in his game going forward.
If his regular season lowered expectations, his post-season may have raised them even higher.
Deuces are (almost) wild for Kotkaniemi. It’s clear that the voting panel sees him behind the person who finished first, but well ahead of the other youngsters in the organization.
The fact that he didn’t get a single first-place vote isn’t necessarily an indication that the panel soured on Kotkaniemi. I think I speak for most of the panel that the top two are closer than the voting makes it seem.
Top 25 Under 25 History
For the second straight year, Kotkaniemi sits at #2 in the ranking, but this time behind a different player.
History of #2
Kotkaniemi’s ability to make the NHL as an 18-year-old was thanks to a game built on strong fundamentals. He’s not a liability defensively, even if his offence isn’t at the point you would want it to be. It limits the negative aspects that make coaches reluctant to play young players, and is a major reason why Claude Julien was willing to play him in the post-season ahead of players like Max Domi.
He was quick to repay that faith. He played a heavy style that took his game to another level both with and without the puck. His physical play sometimes went over the line, and at one point saw him get a game misconduct, but there were plenty of clean hits too.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi levels Brian Dumoulin hard enough to knock his helmet off pic.twitter.com/fcOmKrqWKe— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) August 6, 2020
If Kotkaniemi can take the strong base of his game, and refine the other parts — perhaps even adding aspects — he will be on his way.
The offensive side has been slower to develop at the NHL level, but there’s a ton of skill to be unleashed. Confidence was such a major factor in his second NHL year. He lost his touch, and only when he got to Laval was he able to find it again.
His time with the Rocket was instrumental in improving his play with the puck. He received lots of minutes, lots of possession, and had the freedom to just not worry as much.
What a feed by Jesperi Kotkaniemi to Yannick Veilleux for Veilleux's 10th goal of the year.— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) March 6, 2020
Laval lead 3-0. pic.twitter.com/YtCDlj3oys
The biggest difference between his time in the AHL and when he returned to the NHL for the post-season was the fact he became more of a shooter.
His shot is better than the stats indicate. The issue was that he wasn’t using it as often, nor was he trying to create plays consistently through his offensive slump. In the post-season, he did both.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi puts a Flyers jockstrap in the rafters, and scores his second of the game.— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) August 14, 2020
5-0 Habs. pic.twitter.com/O5rMwDOKCb
Consistency can be a major problem for any young player, and Kotkaniemi is not immune to that. As much as people hope to see the post-season version when the NHL starts play for the 2020-21 season, there is still some uncertainty.
After a summer of preparation that set him up for a subpar season, Kotkaniemi can press the reset button and learn from it. He has consistently set himself up to improve, and while some young players would only see the negative from being sent down, he used it to make himself better.
In the locker room in Laval, he said his first game with the Rocket was his favourite game of the year. He always saw the positive, and as a result made the most of it.
His attitude helps him navigate any setbacks, because he has had his head on straight from the time he was drafted by the organization. He wasn’t fazed by a slow start to his rookie camp, and kept his head down.
Skating has been a question mark in his game since he was draft-eligible. There have been some marked improvements, and him showing effort to improve this area of his game makes this weakness much less of one.
No one will judge Kotkaniemi based on his season at 19 years old. It’s what he does going forward that will build his story. There has been doubt cast on Kotkaniemi since the Canadiens won the Draft Lottery that gave them the number-three pick used to select him. He was widely seen as the wrong pick, selected for the position he played — or would play since much of his draft year was played on the wing — rather than the other qualities of his game.
It’s easy to look at Kotkaniemi and see what he isn’t rather than what he is. But what he has shown in his two years in the Canadiens organization is that he is always looking for ways to improve. For two years he has been one of the youngest regulars in the NHL, and while he has had ups and downs, he has shown constant growth. Development isn’t always linear, and if Kotkaniemi has shown anything, it’s that he has the attitude to not only shrug off the negative but the will to constantly improve.
The Canadiens are a team that focuses a lot of attention on the mental side of prospect evaluation, and attitude has become a buzz word around the organization. Kotkaniemi’s attitude is the reason why he may be the prospect in the organization who turn into something completely different than what he is today — or a year or two ago.
People may not see Kotkaniemi as a potential number-one centre, but those same people don’t see him as a defensive-minded shutdown centre either. He has elements of both, and has shown both sides of that game at the NHL level.
In 2020-21, he should be expected to play a similar role to start the year that he played in the playoffs. With the added depth in the Canadiens’ top nine, he will have strong two-way players to play with, and it will allow him to contribute at both ends of the ice.
We were joined on the pod by Arpon Basu, of the Athletic, to discuss Jesperi Kotkaniemi - however it turned into a bit of an Alexander Romanov discussion too: