At the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Filip Zadina was the prospect that Habs fans wanted for their team. However, the Canadiens’ management had a different plan in mind when they went a bit off the board by selecting Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick.
Kotkaniemi turned 18-years-old just days before hitting the ice for the Habs development camp. Fans began warming up to the idea of having a young center when they saw him on the ice, flashing his skills. Questions emerged at the rookie camp about his ability to play in the NHL in the near future when he seemed lost in his first game in years on North American ice.
Since that game, Kotkaniemi has exponentially improved from game to game. In his second pre-season game against the Maple Leafs, he lined up against John Tavares and Auston Matthews. He was not out of place in any of those matchups, providing excellent two-way play and regularly generating offensive opportunities.
Will Kotkaniemi stay with the Habs, or will they send him down to Laval or home to Finland?
After the 5-to-3 pre-season loss to the Maple Leafs, Claude Julien made his thoughts on the choice public when he said “In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster. The way he’s played, the way he’s handled himself… he’s shown us a lot of good things and it’s pretty hard not to see him with our group.”
“In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster.”
It would seem that the Max Domi suspension left the door wide open for Kotkaniemi to step in and play a top line role. He has taken that opportunity and proven himself capable so far during the preseason, enough so that, in my opinion, he’ll likely be given a nine game audition.
From everything we have seen, Kotkaniemi is NHL-ready now. Fans, as well as coach Julien, are excited by his vision, his hockey IQ, his defensive game and even his size. At the end of his nine games, another tough decision will have to be made.
There is a legitimate question as to whether Kotkaniemi can handle the mental and physical grind of a full 82-game NHL season. Apart from international action, he played 57 regular season games for Assat last season. If he stayed, Kotkaniemi would be in for a significant learning experience.
Fans shouldn’t be concerned with burning one year of his entry-level contract. They should be more worried about his overall development. At this stage, I would compare Kotkaniemi to Columbus center Pierre-Luc Dubois as he entered the 2017-’18 season.
Kotkaniemi may end up producing well offensively this season in the top line role like Dubois did last year. But how likely is that with a team in transition?
Rushing him into the NHL this quickly could hinder his long term developmental growth. Keep in mind, Dubois was a full year older and had gained in maturity and physical stature when he made his NHL debut last season.
Kotkaniemi may be better served in the long run to be sent down to Laval and learn to play the North American style on the smaller ice surface. This would allow him to learn to play heavy minutes in a first line center role in all situations, all while adjusting to the grind of the professional game. The team could also use this season to provide further development time by allowing him to go to the World Junior Championships as Finland’s top line center and dominate there as well.
Management could also decide to return him to Assat with the understanding that he play as a center with his former team. However, their record of only one overtime win among several losses and a last place ranking thus far this season may play a role in their decision. Marc Bergevin may not want his top prospect losing his position at center in favor of older players in hopes that Assat can turn their season around.
It is clear that Kotkaniemi is capable of playing in the NHL now, but in what role?
Management needs to do what is best in the long term for Kotkaniemi and not to use this young player as a public relations story to help sell tickets in what is expected to be a difficult season. It may be more beneficial in the long term to err on the side of caution and let Kotkaniemi develop for one more season away from the NHL. Doing so would allow this rebuild to continue as originally intended and provide another top prospect to add to an already impressive prospect pool.
Edited by Cate Racher, All Habs Hockey Magazine