BROSSARD, Que. — If we had to use one word to describe Jesperi Kotkaniemi, it would be “relaxed.”
Not that you’d glean much from watching the Finnish centreman go through standard tests and drills the Montreal Canadiens ran during their first on-ice session at development camp on Friday. There’s only so much a prospect can show in a one-on-one rush exercise — up against a development coach.
But one of the things you could notice, as clearly in this atmosphere as you would if you were sitting at home watching Kotkaniemi’s highlight packages on YouTube, is how calm and collected he seems as he skates and stickhandles and uncorks what appears to be a rather lethal shot. There’s a smoothness to his game that’s instantly recognizable, one that shows the type of composure he’s already operating with.
Off the ice, under the bright lights of cameras – and in front of a swath of reporters eager to speak to him about his first experience as a Canadien since being drafted in Dallas a week ago – that impression he leaves as someone who’s comfortable and cool was only reinforced.
“I’m just excited to prove myself,” Kotkaniemi said. “I want to be one of the best players in the world,” he added.
When we asked him how quickly he thinks he can become that, he shrugged and said he wasn’t sure. But then he paused, smiled and said, “It will happen.”
Kotkaniemi comes across as relaxed and confident. You have to think those attributes are going to serve him particularly well in a hockey-mad market like Montreal. They will be his life preserver when the pressure of being drafted third overall and being expected to fill a void that’s existed for the Canadiens at centre since the 1990s rises like high tide and threatens to swallow him whole.
That Kotkaniemi’s currently unfazed about already being anointed the team’s future No. 1 centre, ahead of his 18th birthday, speaks volumes about his ability to handle lofty expectations.
“I’m just impressed how he carries himself,” said Canadiens development coach Rob Ramage on Thursday after the 40 prospects on hand were put through off-ice physical tests. “He’s not in awe of anything.”
It’s undeniable Kotkaniemi’s professional experience has a lot to do with that.
He spent the past season playing with the Assat Pori of Finland’s Liiga — facing off against the best players in the country — and he acquitted himself quite nicely, scoring 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games.
Kotkaniemi then took the confidence a good season inspired and brought it to the under-18 world championship, where he proved to be a dominant player in Finland’s gold-medal bid.
He turned a lot of heads in the process.
“You can tell he’s a special player,” said 2017 Canadiens first-rounder Ryan Poehling. “Just the way he plays and how he acts off the ice I think shows a lot about his character.”
It also lends to the idea that Kotkaniemi might not be far off from playing in the world’s best league.
There’s a maturity there that should help balance whatever physical limitations he might have. Sure, he’s only 180 pounds, which is on the slender side for a player who’s 6-foot-2, but carrying yourself like a professional is at least half the battle and there’s no question Kotkaniemi does that.
He’s smart enough — and reserved enough — to know his graduation to the NHL could take time, and he appears motivated and eager to learn.
“Of course, I’ve never played here in North America,” Kotkaniemi said. “That’s probably the biggest thing about this week and what I can take from it. The coaches are great and I’m listening to everything they tell me so I can get better quick.”
The long-term goal is to develop into a player like Florida’s Aleksander Barkov, whom Kotkaniemi idolizes.
“He’s my favourite player,” he said. “I think I play like him; good at both ends and I’m a playmaker. I like to find holes and I’m a good passer.”
Canadiens prospect Jesse Ylonen, who was drafted 35th overall by the Canadiens in Dallas, can attest to that.
Ylonen said he’s played against Kotkaniemi many times, but he also played with him on Finland’s national team at the under-18s two years ago.
“As a player, he’s very smart,” said Ylonen. “He always knows where his linemates are and he’s an excellent passer and very good shooter.
“As a person, he’s a real team player. He always thinks of the team first and he’s a nice guy.”
We’ll get to know him better as a player and as a person as development camp rolls on.
And if Montrealers are hoping to do the same, they can attend scrimmages scheduled for Friday evening, Saturday evening and Sunday morning at the Canadiens’ south-shore practice facility.