Jesperi Kotkaniemi, against all odds, began the season with the Montreal Canadiens playing on their third line and logging an average of 14.40 minutes a game through the first 9 games. During this time, the young Canadiens pivot accumulated 4 points, all secondary assists, and was at 40% in the faceoff circle. Yet, he was solid defensively, posting a + 2, and an impressive 56% Corsi rating (indicating he was very solid in puck possession). The kid played on a line with Joel Armia and Paul Byron to start the season, but Arturri Lekhonen, the third Finnish forward on the team, was quickly placed to the left of his fellow countrymen when Byron went down with an injury.
With such impressive positioning and defensive ability, Kotkaniemi was kept on the team after the 9-game mark (which burned the first year of his three-year Entry Level contract). Claude Julien had mentioned how he had shown glimpses of excellence and had suggested that Kotkaniemi should use his shot a little more often in order to become more dangerous.
It seemed like the kid listened, as Kotkaniemi began using his shot a little more often, especially coming down the rush. Within one game, where Kotkaniemi unleashed 5 shots, of which 4 were high-danger scoring chances, it became evident to everyone that he was not simply just a passer. By his 12th game however, as seen above, he was finally able to get one in after hitting multiple posts the three games prior.
In this play, he used his speed and positioning to beat John Carlson down the side and take a prime-area shot near the circle, which beat Holtby top corner. Almost in an ironic fashion, Kotkaniemi added another goal; this time from right in the blue paint, to bring him to two goals and his naysers to an abrupt halt. In both instances, Kotkaniemi used solid positioning and a quick shot to get on the board.
Kotkaniemi between Game 10 and 40
When on an Entry Level Contract, the other important deadline for a player is game 40. If a rookie is to play 40 games in a season, then he can become an Unrestricted Free-Agent in exactly 7 seasons. We have seen players sent down to the minors for such very reasons (See Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton during the 2014-2015 season being sent down after 37 games). Thus, the question was on everyone’s mind after the Canadiens had agreed to keep him on beyond the 10-game mark.
Marc Bergevin had pointed out Game 40 as being the measuring for Kotkaniemi, as they would evaluate his play during that time to truly see how he could adapt to the long and grueling NHL schedule. However, it seemed like, the more the Canadiens played, the better the kid became. He put up another 13 points in 29 games, while playing with a snake-bitten Lekhonen and a newly-healthy Paul Byron.
Kotkaniemi Evolving as a Center
One thing that really stood out was how effective he was at the center-ice position so early into his career. The young pivot began to take more and more space in the centre of the ice the more the Canadiens would spend time in the offensive zone. Below is an example of this trend, as he sees the play developing along the boards with Lekhonen and immediately stops his trajectory to place himself right in front of the net for the tap-in goal.
With his possession play remaining the same (he continued to hover above the 50% Corsi rating, making him a positive possession player), Kotkaniemi began to show more of his playmaking ability on the rush. He began to use more of his size to attack the enemy zone and greatly increased his ability to execute zone entry. The play below is an perfect example of how Kotkaniemi has taken opponents off-guard with his size and speed. His strong zone entry success rate and precise passing got him a stint on the top powerplay unit for the Canadiens, as his vision, size and shot had continued to develop at the NHL pace. What many didn’t expect was that he could also evolve into a trigger-man on the point.
Upon the return of Shea Weber, Kotkaniemi became the man at the point for the 2nd wave of the Canadiens powerplay. Here is when he truly began to shine with exciting passing plays. He would be able to roam the left point to the half-boards in order to create room in the slot. In the video below, against the best team in the Eastern Conference, you can clearly see Kotkaniemi pull in two Penalty Killers towards him, opening up the slot for Tatar to take a clean shot on Vasilevski.
Clearly, when it comes to effective possession and scoring chance generation, Kotkaniemi has quickly become one of the most dangerous Canadiens; both at 5 on 5 and on the powerplay.
Kotkaniemi’s Complete Game
As Kotkaniemi continued to get used to the style of play in the NHL, he became far more implicated along the boards. He is often seen making little plays along the boards as he gained in confidence. In the above video, you can see him swooping in to help Joel Armia retrieve a puck, attract two Canucks players to him and dish out a sweet feed to Jordie Benn for a goal. This has become extremely evident in his play during the month of December, as he is far more willing to pay the price for the puck.
He has become far more willing to drive towards the high-danger area for scoring opportunities as well. This has resulted in a huge surge in Kotkaniemi’s primary points. Since the 10 game mark, 13 of his last 16 points have either been goals or primary assists. This goes to show how much more implicated Kotkaniemi has become in the creation of offense for the Canadiens.
Another aspect that has greatly improved in Kotkaniemi’s game is his controlled zone entry. As seen in the video above, Kotkaniemi can enter the zone and use his frame/size to generate space. This momentary gap will then force the defending players to converge on him, and create an open lane for a streaking Lekhonen who, you guessed it, shoots wide.
His ability to enter the zone with ease can also be viewed on this great play below. Kotkaniemi is able to receive a pass from centre ice and enter the zone. In this case, after seeing the defending Bobby Ryan continuing to back up, Kotkaniemi thus puck towards him and did what the entire Bell Centre yelled for him to do: Shoot! Although it did fortuitously bounce off the pipe, goaltender and into the net, this is solid karma for a player that has hit far too many posts.
No really, he has hit too many posts…
Kotkaniemi’s Positioning Improving
The above and below videos demonstrate that Kotkaniemi has slowly, but surely, been able to settle into the centre ice position. His rise in efficiency in the faceoff circle, which has gone from 40% in the first 15 games of the season to a respectable 55% over the last 20 games stretch, has been a most welcomed sight for Habs fans and management.
On top of being more confident along the boards and on the powerplay, Kotkaniemi has settled into his centre ice position quite nicely now. The above and below video demonstrates Kotkaniemi’s rush down the middle, where he is able to grab a loose puck/receive a pass by beating the opposition with his speed and smarts. Although the puck isn’t going in yet, you can bet that, if he continues to attack like this, they will begin going in for him.
In more recent games, Kotkaniemi has gone from being a very smart, cerebral player, to one that is far more implicated on a physical level in regards to his coverage missions. He has become a more physically implicated player, finally combining his high Hockey IQ with his enviable size. Below, we see him converge aggressively on the attacking player cutting through the middle and making a pass towards an open Lekhonen.
Kotkaniemi’s positioning and increased confidence in his strength also allows him to come down very low to help his defensemen while pinned in their zone. In this case, he is able to position himself between Arizona players behind the play and stop a shot that was most likely to result in a goal. By trying to get the pass to a cheating Tomas Tatar, who had already begun leaving the zone, Kotkaniemi was able to pull in the rebound, pull it to the boards with him and lob it out of the zone so the very tired group can change.
If you look closely here, he totally schools David Schlemko on how to defend, as the defenseman simply watches and remains idle, while Kotkaniemi uses his long reach, frame and skating to ensure there is no further damage.
His work in tight spaces has also greatly improved. He uses his reach and speed and vision to not only pull two players towards him, but spot a streaking Lekhonen for an outlet pass. In many cases, this would result in a breakaway for the streaking player, but, unfortunately, Lekhonen mishandles the pass and nothing comes from the play.
Nonetheless, Kotkaniemi’s positional play at all ends of the ice not only show he can be a centre, but that he can be a damn good one.
Kotkaniemi: Top-6 Player
Jesperi Kotkaniemi may be playing on the Canadiens 3rd line, but he has very much played like a top-6 player. His possession numbers and his recent play in all three zones show that Kotkaniemi’s play has actually improved as the season has gone on. He’s currently on a 4 game point streak and has created a plethora of high-danger scoring chances.
Generally speaking, rookies will tend to slow down during the long 82-game schedule in the NHL. One need simply look at Ottawa and their rookie winger Brady Tkachuk, who has put up 5 points in his last 19 games; despite playing almost 2 minutes more per game than Kotkaniemi ( average of 16 minutes of ice-time). Unlike Tkachuk, who only played 40 NCAA games and 7 international games for 47 total games last year, Kotkaniemi played almost double that total last year for Assat and Team Finland.
Thus, Kotkaniemi is already used to such a long season and looks poised to show even more of his potential. As he continues to improve, expect him to rise within the lineup as the Canadiens continue to shuffle their lines. For those like TSN’s Gord Miller, who believe that Kotkaniemi hasn’t progressed proprly this season, they clearly haven’t been watching this youngster, who has continued to silence his detractors, grow this season. Needless to say, the best in yet to come for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.