TORONTO — With so many good numbers to choose from, this one stands out most: 19:32.
That was Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s ice-time in Montreal’s 1-0 loss on Sunday. It was 2:24 more than he had played in any other NHL game he’d appeared in, 3:44 more than he had played in any game this past season, and it was almost a full minute more than any other Canadiens forward got on the ice for in this game.
As the Canadiens scrambled frantically to avoid falling 2-1 in their series with the Flyers, Kotkaniemi jumped on with 1:41 remaining and he stayed on until the final buzzer went.
He came oh-so-close to tying it, breaking in all alone with 51 seconds left and the puck on his backhand.
“Well, you know what? He’s hot, and we needed a goal,” Canadiens interim head coach Kirk Muller said afterwards. “Every game’s different; you can have the lead, you can be chasing it, you’ve just got to make those decisions as the game goes on. He had some great opportunities again tonight and he’s got the hot stick, so he’s creating opportunities. Every night’s going to be different, we’ve just got to go with who’s going and who’s not. It’s playoff hockey so you’ve just got to make those changes and adjustments every game.”
Kotkaniemi’s been going since he arrived back in Montreal in July.
Fresh off four months of rest, recovered from what was supposed to be a season-ending spleen injury, the kid, who celebrated his 20th birthday on July 6, suddenly looked like a man.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien noticed immediately. He vaunted Kotkaniemi’s speed and his improved skating, and he talked about how he could go from the outside of the picture to smack in the middle of it for these playoffs.
And here was what top-line centre Phillip Danault said on the third day of Phase 3 training camp:
“I can tell you his shot is really devastating, He got a little tougher, a little bigger, obviously gained some maturity out there…I like what I see so far.”
So did we.
There was an air of confidence about Kotkaniemi that hadn’t quite been there since he first arrived with the Canadiens, not even as he broke in as the NHL’s youngest player at the onset of the 2018-19 season.
He was playing with house money then and content to be in a limited role, soaking in his first experience in the world’s greatest hockey league.
But it took losing that job—at least temporarily—to get Kotkaniemi to where he is now. And where is now is where the Canadiens always hoped he would be when they made the decision to draft him third overall in June of 2018.
Of all the things that have happened since the Canadiens arrived in the bubble—and there have been many good ones, from Nick Suzuki proving to be even better than he showed as a rookie-of-the-year candidate this season to Carey Price playing what might be considered the best hockey of his illustrious career to the Canadiens shocking the Pittsburgh Penguins in a qualifying series that didn’t even make it the distance to the team giving the East-leading Flyers all they can handle in Round 1—nothing has been more attention-grabbing than Kotkaniemi’s performance.
The Pori, Finland native leads the Canadiens with four goals, he’s been a dominant player at both ends of the ice, and what he’s gaining right now in terms of experience and confidence bodes as well for the team’s future as it does for its present.
It was a process to get here. Kotkaniemi had off-season knee surgery and then struggled with a core injury that hampered him out of the gate. He had a brutal training camp in September and a sluggish start to the season in October. He took some games off to rehab and then was concussed shortly after his return. And by the time he was demoted to the American Hockey League, at the beginning of February, he was ready to be anywhere but Montreal.
With six goals and two assists, a minus-11 rating and ice-time dwindling through 36 games, the kid was in need of something the Canadiens couldn’t give him.
“Things didn’t work well,” Kotkaniemi said on Feb. 3. “I didn’t play that much. It didn’t work. This is a good stop for me, hopefully. I should get more ice.”
He got loads of it under Laval Rocket coach Joel Bouchard, he produced 13 points in 12 games and, in the process, rediscovered his joy for the game and grew by leaps and bounds.
The product of that—and some heavy-duty training over the months the NHL season was paused for—is what we’re seeing right now.
“No one wants to go down, very proud players and everything, but he did and he learned from it,” said Muller after Kotkaniemi scored two goals in Montreal’s 5-0 win over the Flyers in Game 2. “It’s the maturity level. This is a really tough league and when you’re young, you’ve got to learn some stuff. But you know what? It made him a better player and you can see it; he’s faster, he’s stronger, his play has shown it. He took it and learned from it, got to be a better player, and he’s been a real big impact on our hockey team since we’ve come to Toronto.”
There’s a sense Kotkaniemi will continue to be one as these playoffs move along.