Jesperi Kotkaniemi just turned 20-years-old and he has already had to deal with some ups and downs while playing in Montreal
By: Noelani Maynard
One of the biggest question marks surrounding the Montreal Canadiens heading into the 2020 post-season was that of the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
The Finnish native played a total of 57 games with Assat Pori within the Finnish Elite League in the 2017-2018 season. He tallied 10 goals and 19 assists while maintaining a -1 plus-minus. He was a quick centre with a lethal shot and the Canadiens decided to gamble on it.
Kotkaniemi definitely began to assert himself in his rookie season with the Canadiens as he played a total of 79 games, tallying 11 goals and 23 assists. One area of his game that visibly needed work was that of his physical play. He had 26 penalty minutes (most of which consisted of serving bench minors for too many men) throughout the season and hesitated on hits. After not making the playoffs that year, Kotkaniemi worked twice as hard during the offseason to improve his game. However, his hard work off ice was not reflected in his game the following season.
Throughout the 2019-2020 season, Kotkaniemi visibly struggled. He was losing puck battles, coughing up pucks in the neutral zone and couldn’t get shots on net. He played 36 games with the Canadiens, recording only eight points, before management decided to send him down to the Canadiens’ farm team, the Laval Rocket.
This was an interesting move for an array of reasons. Many argued that Kotkaniemi was rushed into the NHL, thus resulting in his lack of dominance in his second season that was so apparent his rookie year. However, some tried to look for the bright side in that Kotkaniemi was likely to gain his confidence back and continue to work on his skills in an environment where he is more likely to thrive.
And it appears that is exactly what happened. In 13 games with the Rocket, the Finn was a point per game with one goal and 12 assists. His physical game seemed to improve as well, as he recorded 16 penalty minutes. Unfortunately, Kotkaniemi suffered a spleen injury and couldn’t return to play as Covid-19 struck, but luckily he would get his shot in the playoffs.
As previously mentioned, Kotkaniemi was one of the biggest question marks heading into the playoffs, right next to goaltender Carey Price. Fans hadn’t seen Kotkaniemi play with the Canadiens since January and, along with the spleen injury and derailing confidence, weren’t sure what to expect from the youngster.
Kotkaniemi came flying into the playoffs, scoring the first goal in the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was obvious he had grown a bit in size since his last game with the Canadiens and his confidence seemed to be off the charts. He finally looked like the third overall draft pick he was. He continued to rush into the offensive zone, outskate players, and get multiple shots on goal.
The Finn ended up scoring four goals between the series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as 10 total points. Kotkanemi was visibly stronger and no longer hesitated on hits. This was extremely apparent in game five against the Philadelphia Flyers where he was given a five minute major and game misconduct for boarding Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim.
This was definitely a new side to the youngster that little to no one had seen before or expected. In retrospect, sending Kotkaniemi down to the Laval Rocket to give him extra time to sharpen his skills and build his confidence was the best decision for him as well as the team. He is expected to return back to the Canadiens lineup next season after a stellar playoff performance and make just as big of an impact as he did in this postseason.