Since the CBA has been ratified, we’ve seen players opting out and others deemed unfit to play. As a result, this tournament that will start on August 1st becomes an opportunity for many young players to impress and get a bigger role with their teams. This is the case of Montreal Canadiens Finnish centerman Jesperi Kotkaniemi. With Max Domi potentially opting out, Kotkaniemi could step up and take that next step. He most likely will be the third line center and could prove that he deserves to be in the top-six as soon as next season.
Some people seem to have already given up on the youngster becoming an elite centerman in the NHL. In this article, we’ll take a look at why he still has the potential to be just that.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Has the Potential to Be an Elite Centerman
Why Do People Think He Won’t Be an Elite Centerman
Concerns at the Draft
Selected third overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi wasn’t a unanimous pick amongst Habs fans. Kotkaniemi was considered by many to be the best centerman of the draft, but he was projected to be selected in the top 10 about a week before the draft. When people heard that Montreal was going to draft a center with the 3rd overall selection, we knew it was going to be the Finnish player. It then brought up the debate of whether or not teams should draft the best player available or draft by position since this draft was considered to be heavy in wingers and defencemen.
His Career So Far
The rumours suggested that he should play at least another season in Finland before coming over as he was not considered to be mature enough physically. However, Kotkaniemi surprisingly made the team at 18 years old. In his rookie season, he impressed by putting up 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games. It looked like it was a good pick by the Montreal Canadiens.
In his second season, he was a victim of the sophomore slump. After scoring two goals in the first three games of the 2019-20 season, Kotkaniemi only managed to put up 6 points in the next 33 games. That’s when he was sent down to play with the Montreal Canadiens affiliate team the Laval Rocket. In the AHL, he found chemistry with veteran Charles Hudon. Kotkaniemi put up 13 points in 13 games with the Rocket. However, fans were still concerned as he only scored one goal and was given first-line ice time.
All of these things combined make fans skeptical that the young centerman will never live up to the expectations the team had for him when they picked him.
Why He Can Still Become an Elite Centerman
Since he started playing for the Habs at 18 years old, a lot of people don’t realize that Kotkaniemi is still very young. He turned 20 years old on July 6th, 2020. In the near future, he will become that first-line center the Canadiens have been looking for, and here’s why.
Aleksander Barkov is a name that was brought up a lot before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft when talking about Kotkaniemi. He even compared himself to the Florida Panthers captain in an interview before the draft. They are similar in size and in play style. This comparison is good and could show why Kotkaniemi can become a first-line center.
Barkov was selected second overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. Just like for Kotkaniemi, a lot of people were worried about the Panthers selection. Jonathan Drouin was regarded as the second pick for most people that year. However, history shows that the Panthers were right.
Barkov also had a slow start to his career in Florida. In his rookie season, he did fine putting up 24 points in 54 games. In his second season, he had 36 points in 71 games of which 16 were goals. To a lot of people, it seemed like it was taking a while for a second overall pick to become dominant. In his third season, he did just that scoring 28 goals and putting up 59 points in only 66 games. The rest is history.
Although Kotkaniemi doesn’t have the exact progression that his fellow countryman has had, we can see the resemblance in their progression and it wouldn’t be surprising if Jesperi Kotkaniemi explodes as soon as next season.
Another reason to not rule out Kotkaniemi’s potential of becoming a first-line center is the fact that he suffered many injuries that held him back.
At the end of the 2018-19 season, he went under the knife for an injury to his left knee. The injury didn’t stop him from finishing the season. However, it’s safe to say that it didn’t allow him to play to his full potential. That might’ve slowed his progression. Also, it seemed to affect him in the training camp in preparation for the 2019-20 season. It looked like something was off and that probably was the reason why. It’s not hard to believe that this lingering injury also held him back during the regular season.
Also, on December 5th, 2019, Kotkaniemi suffered a concussion. When he came back he couldn’t pick up the pace it seemed like. He already wasn’t having a good start to the year and that injury certainly didn’t help. As mentioned earlier he eventually got sent down in the AHL to find his game.
As he was finally finding his game in Laval, he suffered a spleen injury and, obviously, hasn’t played since. He was back on track but yet another injury stopped him in his progression. In hindsight, we know the season would’ve been stopped not too long after anyways. The good news is that he is on the roster for the Montreal Canadiens and will participate in the play-in series against Sidney Crosby‘s Pittsburgh Penguins.
Injuries have definitely held back Jesperi Kotkaniemi. If he stays healthy, there is no reason to believe he can’t become the player he was drafted to be.
During his time off, Kotkaniemi worked hard to come back for the tournament. He healed from his spleen injury and trained in Finland before coming back to Montreal to attend training camp.
Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien has been impressed with Kotkaniemi so far. He was particularly impressed by his skating. His skating was his biggest weakness and it seems like he has improved tremendously in that regard. He’s showing that he has progressed despite the multiple injuries he suffered and that is encouraging.
Also, another aspect that he has improved is his shot. When asked about his thoughts on Kotkaniemi during training camp, Phillip Danault mentioned that he must have worked on his shot because it is devastating. That’s another sign that Kotkaniemi is improving and could prove many wrong.
He Could Surprise in the Play-in Series
With everything that has been said, it wouldn’t be surprising if Kotkaniemi becomes an elite centerman for the Habs. As mentioned earlier, with Max Domi potentially opting out, Kotkaniemi could take that next step during this play-in series. This tournament feels like a whole new season even though it was designed to finish one. He has the opportunity to show his worth. If he is able to step up in the series against the Pens, the Habs might upset the Penguins. A healthy Kotkaniemi could do damage and he could push for a top-6 role next season.