31 Thoughts Podcast: Canadiens eye centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi at NHL Draft

Jesperi Kotkaniemi is now a member of the Montreal Canadiens. (Dave Reginek/Getty)

For the first time since 2012, the Montreal Canadiens hold the third pick in the NHL Draft. And one week after they traded that 2012 pick, Alex Galchenyuk, to Arizona, the Canadiens are still looking for a top-line centre.

That’s why, according to Sportsnet’s junior hockey insider Sam Cosentino, the Canadiens are targeting Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with their pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. And they could trade down to get him.

“I think they’ve already investigated several trade back opportunities,” Cosentino said on the latest episode of the 31 Thoughts Podcast with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman. “It’s probably cooled just a little bit because I think it’s pretty well out there that they want Kotkaniemi as the centre.

“There’s a lot of people out there who has him as the consensus No. 1 centre in this draft.”

Kotkaniemi, 17, is described by Elite Prospects.com as “a smart forward with a dangerous shot,” who also “possesses a high hockey IQ and determination with the skills to back it up.” Last year with Ässät in the top league in Finland, he had 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games.

In Sportsnet’s final draft rankings published at the end of April, Kotkaniemi was ranked 19th among eligible players. While he’s rising in some draft rankings he’s considered a reach at pick No. 3, especially when players who could make the jump to the NHL next year, like Filip Zadina and Brady Tkachuk, are still expected to be available.

“For me, a top-four D or a top-six forward. Absolutely, guaranteed your first-rounder should be that,” Cosentino said. “So I look at Marc Bergevin and I say, you better get a guy who can play right now.

“If you take Kotkaniemi, in terms of his skating and being physically mature, he’s probably just a shade behind. So I don’t think he plays for you next year.”

Marek asked Cosentino if there were any similarities between Kotkaniemi and 2016 third-overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois, whom most people were surprised the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted that high.

While Dubois went back to the QMJHL for one more season, he broke into the NHL in a big way this year.

“There was a bit of risktaking there,” Cosentino said. “So if you go back to Kotkaniemi, if (Montreal) takes him there he’s probably not going to affect your team right away … but two to three years down the road I think you’re going to see a pretty good player.”

A weekly deep dive into the biggest hockey news in the world with hosts Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek. New episodes every Thursday.

Should the Ottawa Senators keep pick No. 4?

Another topic the trio discussed was whether the Ottawa Senators should keep the fourth-overall pick. Currently, the Senators owe either their 2018 or 2019 first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche as part of the Matt Duchene trade.

But with all the off-ice problems surrounding the team, Friedman suggested the Senators give up pick No. 4 instead of risking that 2019 pick is even higher.

But Cosentino disagreed, saying if a star player like Erik Karlsson or Mike Hoffman is traded this off-season, the 2018 pick could slot in to help fill the hole in the lineup.

“I think there’s too good of a player to get there,” Cosentino said. “Noah Dobson, he’s no Karlsson, but I think he’s a top-pairing defenceman three years down the road. Filip Zadina, does a lot of the same things Hoffman does.

“So I don’t want to talk about a direct replacement of that player, but you’re getting a player that I think three to four years down the road are of similar ilk to the two guys you might have to get rid of.”

The draft is defence heavy

A common theme heading into the draft is how many good defencemen are expected to be taken with the top picks. Besides Rasmus Dahlin at No. 1, Dobson, Evan Bouchard, Quinn Hughes, Adam Boqvist and Ty Smith are all trending high and should be chosen in the top 15.

Cosentino compared this defence-heavy class to the 2008 draft, which saw 12 defencemen go in the first round, and 10 of them still on NHL rosters. That group includes Drew Doughty (No. 2), Alex Pietrangelo (No. 4) and Karlsson (No. 15) among others.

“You look at the number of defenceman taken, I think there will be 12-15 in the first round this year. There were 12 in (2008).” Cosentino said. “You look at the number of right-shot defencemen who are impact guys, all at the top, I think you’ll see a similar situation here.”

Like 2008, the top defenceman taken had high expectations to be a franchise player. And while we’ve now seen Doughty live up to those expectations, Cosentino thinks Dahlin can too.

“Dahlin I think is going to be a No. 1 defenceman for a very long time,” Cosentino said. “Which is rare to find.”

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