The Montreal Canadiens have a plan to weaponize their 2018 first-round pick.
When the Montreal Canadiens went to the podium to make the third overall selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, it was with the explicit intentions of landing their franchise forward of the future.
Fast forward to 2020, and mission accomplished; the Canadiens have a blossoming young center who should lead their offense for years to come, only that player isn’t who they drafted on that fateful day back in June.
No, in a sheer twist of hockey serendipity, the Habs seemingly lucked their way into a top-20 center in 21-year-old London, Ontario-native Nick Suzuki, who they acquired via trade from the Vegas Golden Knights alongside Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick in exchange for Max Pacioretty, and could supplant Phillip Danault on Claude Julien’s top-line by midseason.
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And as for Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the player Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin ultimately selected with the aforementioned third overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft? Well, his NHL career hasn’t been off to as smooth of a start.
Measuring in at 6-foot-2,184-pounds, Kotkaniemi was marketed as a big-bodied left-handed center with a great shot and a keen eye for getting his teammates involved as a playmaker. As a rookie, Kotkaniemi appeared in 79 games as a bottom-six center and actually had fairly encouraging numbers – picking up 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points. Kotkaniemi was also fairly locked in on the defensive end of the ice, picking up 41 blocks, 66 hits, and 32 takeaways in 13:44 ATOI per game.
But, unfortunately, Kotkaniemi was unable to top those numbers in an ultimately underwhelming sophomore season.
Hampered by the effects of a minor chronic injury, Kotkaniemi underwent successful knee surgery in Montreal during the 2018-19 offseason before opening the regular season on the Habs’ opening day roster. Though his role remained relatively unchanged as a sophomore – averaging 13:00 ATOI with a marginally improved 10.9 shooting percentage – things simply didn’t break nearly as often for the then-19-year-old as they did as a rookie. He finished out his regular season with six goals and only two assists and spent 13 games with the Laval Rocket versus 36 in the NHL.
Has Kotkaniemi been thoroughly outpaced by Suzuki both on the depth chart and in the Canadiens’ future plans? Surely so, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily a lost cause or *gasp* a bust. No, assuming Kotkaniemi can take a step forward and put up a stat line more akin to his rookie season over Montreal’s abbreviated, intradivision-only 2020-21 season, the Finish forward could be back in #hockeytwitter’s good graces in no time.
With Josh Anderson placed on a line with Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin during the first few practices of training camp, Kotkaniemi has been skating on a line with Joel Armia and free agent addition Tyler Toffoli according to RDS reporter Luc Gelinas (at least according to my google translator). While some, like NHL.com’s Dan Rosen and NHL Network’s Mike Johnson, projected Toffoli to play on a second line alongside Suzuki and Anderson in their 31-in-31 series, the idea of pairing the veteran 28-year-old with a similarly sized playmaker eight years his junior could do wonders for the later’s development both in 2020-21 and long-term.
In Toffoli, Kotkaniemi has a reliable outlet pass, a do-it-all offensive forward who has scored 20-plus goals four of the last six seasons, and a proven veteran who just spent the back half of the 201-20 season filling a very similar role alongside Canucks’ center Elias Pettersson – who, like Kotkaniemi, was a high first-round pick, albeit one who has produced 66 points in each of his first two professional seasons.
If Kotkaniemi can produce points in the mid-30s over the Habs’ 56 game season, it’ll be huge. If he can crack 40, maybe even 45, it’ll all but guarantee the Canadiens one of the best center rotations in the Atlantic Division when things return to normal in 2021-22, even if Danault walks in free agency and the team has to kick Toffoli inside.
Has Jesperi Kotkaniemi lived up to the sky-high expectations many had during the 2018 pre-draft process? No, I don’t think even the biggest fans of the Finnish forward would say that. But by formulating a concise plan that pairs the young upstart with a veteran mentor, the Montreal Canadiens are at least doing everything in their power to put the 20-year-old in the best position to succeed moving forward. If it works, the benefits could be sky-high.