After a pre-season where he seemed to get better every single game, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is wowing pretty much everyone that has watched the Montreal Canadiens rookie play so far in the regular season.
While his playmaking skill is what most are paying attention to, along with some good signs from his on-ice statistics — Kotkaniemi is currently fifth on the Canadiens in Corsi at 57.8% — I’ve been taking a look at some of the little things he does that drive play.
Often when we’re talking about the top offensive producers in the NHL, we mention their hockey sense, their feel for the game and how they manage to be in the right place at the right time. Two games into his NHL career, Kotkaniemi seems to have loads of that, and one area that it’s very apparent is in his ability to pick up pucks in the offensive zone.
Most loose puck recoveries by the attacking team in the offensive zone are along the boards, off of shots that are directed wide, forechecks, broken plays or failed clearing attempts. Kotkaniemi has 15 in the first two games, fourth on the Canadiens, but look at where a bunch of his occur.
Kotkaniemi is handling the puck and is tripped up by Zach Hyman, but he fights through falling and recovers the puck, sending it back to the point to Xavier Ouellet, who just chips the puck back down the boards. Kotkaniemi then knocks the puck away from Hyman, battles along the boards and sends a south cycle pass to Jonathan Drouin that’s deflected over his stick by Jake Gardiner.
Nikita Zaitsev beats Drouin to the puck and tries to dump the puck out along the boards on his backhand, but Tavares can’t control it and it deflects into the middle of the ice near the blue line, where Kotkaniemi has tracked the play, where he recovers the puck a third time and he attempts a shot from distance, not realizing he has some space.
This was his first shift in the NHL. Not bad.
Drouin enters the offensive zone and tries to centre the puck either to Kotkaniemi or Joel Armia, but it misses both, and while Armia battles three Leafs for the puck, Kotkaniemi has circled the net and picks the puck up out of the pack. He slips and falls, but this shows his ability to recognize where the puck is going and beat multiple opponents for it without even engaging them.
Armia finds Kotkaniemi behind the net, who moves out and tries to find Drouin with a pass to the slot, but Auston Matthews intercepts it with his skate and puts it in the corner. Kotkaniemi reacts quicker than Matthews and beats him to the puck, sending the puck back to the point to keep possession in the offensive zone.
After Victor Mete takes a shot off of a nice little passing play by Kotkaniemi and Max Domi, Domi recovers the puck along the boards under pressure and sends a wild pass out of Kotkaniemi’s reach that bounces off the boards and looks like it’s going to clear the zone, but again Kotkaniemi takes a good angle and recovers it.
Instead of taking the conservative route and exiting the zone to regroup, he recognizes that Mete going for the same puck will provide a pick on the incoming Kasperi Kapanen, so he holds his ground and pinches in, does a give-and-go with Domi, and registers a scoring chance from the high slot as the power play expires.
After Armia loses a faceoff, Andreas Johnsson ends up with the puck and starts to break out, but Armia quickly stick checks him and sends the puck back, but he’s not ready to control it. Kotkaniemi was in perfect position to control the puck and reverse the play, putting a weak wrist shot on Andersen from the perimeter.
After a dump in, Ron Hainsey has body position on Armia and lifts his stick to keep the puck going up the boards to Connor Brown, but while Brown is ready to pick up the loose puck, Kotkaniemi streaks in and picks it up, out-battling him and Hainsey until Armia comes in to help him and picks up the loose puck.
Armia has gained the offensive zone with control and pulls up on the boards while under pressure by Zaitsev, only to get wrecked by Par Lindholm with a great clean check. Johnsson picks up the loose puck and sees an outlet option in Kapanen, but Kotkaniemi sees the play develop and streaks into the passing lane to pick it off, dangles around Johnsson and takes a shot from the edge of the slot that Gardiner just gets a stick on to deflect wide.
Kotkaniemi loses the faceoff but Armia doesn’t give up on the puck, knocking it away from Dominik Simon, but again he’s not able to pick up the puck he’s poked loose. Kotkaniemi, though, has already pivoted to where the puck is going and beats everyone to it. All alone in the inner slot, he gets a high-danger scoring chance on Matt Murray, who holds his ground and makes the save.
Kotkaniemi loses another faceoff and the Penguins send the puck around the boards to clear it up the wall, but Bryan Rust can’t chip it out under pressure from Mete, and it goes to the middle of the ice where Kotkaniemi is skating back in a defensive position. He recovers the puck and sends it back in deep.
One thing you’ll notice overall is that Kotkaniemi is very good at recovering wild pucks and keeping them under control, then making plays that keep offensive zone possession.
You’ll also notice in a bunch of those plays he’s either intercepting passes or recognizing when and where a loose puck will occur before anyone else on the ice. His positioning is strong in the first place, but it’s his recognition of developing plays that allows him to be on top of things.
That anticipation keeps plays alive, creates longer offensive zone possessions while opponents are more tired, and can directly create scoring chances for himself or others while opponents are in reaction mode and their defensive structure isn’t in place.
The crazy thing is, Kotkaniemi does this in the defensive and neutral zones too, so often that he’s first among all Canadiens players in loose puck recoveries per 20 minutes played at 28.7, an area defencemen usually lead. In fact, among all forwards in the NHL this season, only Aleksander Barkov and Cody Eakin are recovering more loose pucks per minute than Kotkaniemi.
So how much is that translating into offence?
Keep in mind that we’re talking about three whole games here, with Kotkaniemi matched up against some of the best centres in the game, and he looks pretty strong here. Claude Julien has been attempting to manage his minutes fairly well, and as a result, he leads the Canadiens in scoring chances generated for his teammates.
It took until his third game of the season for Kotkaniemi to complete a pass to the slot at 5-vs-5, but he was putting in the work and is already one of the best playmakers on the team.
His shooting so far could be better. He shoots from a bit further out than he needs to and part of that is recognizing he has time to take a stride closer to the net, which is more than likely just rookie jitters.
It’s going to be interesting to watch how he develops over his nine-game tryout and see if he can force the Canadiens to keep him all season.