February 1 was the day the NHL career of Jesperi Kotkaniemi hit its first road bump. The Montreal Canadiens demoted him to the AHL and Habs Twitter was in a frenzy. Many fans were starting to call the then 19-year-old a bust, wondering if the Canadiens made the right selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. It was then when Montreal elected to go with Kotkaniemi over Brady Tkachuk, Filip Zadina, and Quinn Hughes, amongst others.
However, Kotkaniemi was the fifth-ranked skater in the draft. It wasn’t a complete reach by the Canadiens. He also filled the biggest hole the Canadiens had in their lineup. It puts you in mind of when the Winnipeg Jets elected to take Mark Scheifele over the higher-ranked Sean Couturier or Dougie Hamilton in 2011. Or in 2013 when the Florida Panthers picked Aleksander Barkov over Seth Jones or Jonathan Drouin. Both those players ended up proving to be solid picks. You could make the argument that they were the right ones as well. The Canadiens are hoping that is the case for Kotkaniemi.
Improvements of Jesperi Kotkaniemi During NHL Pause
Kotkaniemi took his demotion like a true pro, which was incredible to see given that he was still only 19. He was excited at the chance to play more minutes for the Laval Rocket and he took that chance by the horns by playing outstanding for the Rocket. In the 13 games he played, Kotkaniemi registered a goal and 12 assists. However, Kotkaniemi suffered a spleen injury that would shut him down for the rest of the season. It didn’t matter in the end, in terms of playing, as the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled the AHL season anyway, and put a pause on the NHL.
Kotkaniemi went back to his native Finland to rehab from his injury and get back to work. He bulked up as was seen in a picture that Kotkaniemi shared on Instagram. But to the surprise of coach Claude Julien and the rest of his Habs teammates, that’s not the only area Kotkaniemi improved.
Claude Julien Really Impressed with Kotkaniemi’s Skating
Upon Kotkaniemi’s return, Julien was mot impressed by his skating. In an article by Pat Hickey of the ‘Montreal Gazette’, Julien was quoted saying “He’s skating way better than he did at the beginning of the year. We knew he had a knee surgery and the recovery and everything … he was still a 19-year-old player, he had his ups and downs, he had his challenges. Everybody knew that. But I like what I’m seeing right now, he seems to have a good pace to his game and his skating.”
This improved skating can be credited to the work Kotkaniemi put in back in Finland with Janne Hanninen and Raimo Summanen. A Finnish website reported that Kotkaniemi elected to join the duo’s training program run out of Helsinki, Finland. Hanninen is a former Finnish speed skater while Summanen is a former NHL player and current head coach of HIFK of the Finnish Elite League. It’s a camp that teammate and fellow ‘Finn’ Joel Armia has attended that focuses on skating. The Athletic’s Arpon Basu mentioned in a recent article that Armia had extended an invite to Kotkaniemi in the offseason, however, he declined. This year, however, Kotkaniemi realized it was something he drastically needed to make the next step. It seems to have worked out in his favour.
Not only has Jesperi Kotkaniemi improved his skating ability, but he has also shown improvements in his shot. TSN’s John Lu tweeted a video of Kotkaniemi set up in the right circle and taking a one-timer. The speed and power he was able to get behind the shot was incredible. Lu explains in the tweet that since the beginning of training camp, Kotkaniemi has been working on his shot after practice. Habs centre Phillip Danault describes the shot as “devastating”. As you can see from the video, the shot really does look effortless.
Since the start of training camp #Habs Kotkaniemi has been working on his shot after practices. On Wednesday Danault described KK’s shot as “devastating”. His extra work has resulted in effortless power in his one-timer from the R circle. pic.twitter.com/nVStQR0InB
— John Lu (@JohnLuTSNMtl) July 17, 2020
This is great news for the Habs. Since moving Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Max Domi, they have not had a legitimate scoring option on the right side on the powerplay. Now, Montreal could utilize Kotkaniemi in that position. That not only gives the Habs a legitimate scoring threat, but it will also help open up Shea Weber as teams will now have an extra threat to focus on. This could be key in the Canadiens series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Canadiens are already one of the best 5v5 teams in the league. If they can get their powerplay going, it will greatly improve their postseason odds.
Where Does Jesperi Kotkaniemi Fit into the Lineup?
That’s the biggest question. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was practising as the third line centre for the Canadiens since the start of training camp. However, Max Domi has decided to join his teammates for their upcoming series against the Penguins, leaving Kotkaniemi’s position in question. Regardless of this, it seems as though Kotkaniemi will be on the team regardless. Whether it’s playing centre or the wing has yet to be determined. The skillset of Kotkaniemi is just too good to leave off the roster as they prepare to go to battle against the Penguins. Kotkaniemi is a smart two-way player who has excellent hockey sense and is a legitimate scoring threat. The Habs will need someone with his talents if they want to beat the high-scoring Penguins team.
Ready to Play
Whatever the Habs decide to do with the young centreman, Kotkaniemi is just making sure he is ready to go. He stated during an interview that “My job is to do the best every day and we’ll see where that’s going to take me. If I’m not in the lineup, I’ll just be in the stands cheering for the boys.”
The maturity Jesperi Kotkaniemi shows is uncanny for such a young man. He may have gone through a sophomore slump this year while battling through injuries, but he continued to work. Not only with Laval coach Joel Bouchard but also during his time back home in Finland. It shows Kotkaniemi is willing to do whatever it takes not only to help his team if called upon during the play-ins but also as he continues what will hopefully be a long NHL career.