STOCKHOLM — The main reason Jesperi Kotkaniemi earned the right to be the youngest player in the NHL last season is because of how quickly he showed the Montreal Canadiens brass he could be trusted with taking care of the puck and handling defensive positioning.
But with the 19-year-old centre now focused on taking another step forward as a sophomore, he’s planning to demand more from himself in the offensive zone.
“I’m just trying to be a bit more selfish, I guess,” Kotkaniemi told Sportsnet. “I think last year I had many good scoring chances and I didn’t use those too much. I tried to pass too often and find the passing lane.
“This year I hopefully will score a little bit more.”
He finished his first NHL campaign with 11 goals — trailing 15 other rookies — but was deployed differently than the majority of his peers. The Canadiens used Kotkaniemi primarily as a centre, where he had to divert more focus to defensive assignments than creating offence, and he wound up playing less than 14 minutes per night on a team that was in a playoff race until the final days of the season.
It only stands to reason that a bump in production will follow once he assumes a bigger role on the team and gets more comfortable with his surroundings.
“That’s my goal this year,” Kotkaniemi said during the recent NHL/NHLPA European Player Media Tour.
Beyond the management suite in Montreal, there was some doubt about how ready the 2018 third-overall pick would be to stick with the Canadiens right away last fall. But Kotkaniemi cleared every significant rookie hurdle while dressing for 79 games — only getting scratched a couple times in March when the playoff chase intensified and the grind of the schedule caught up with him.
A closer look at his season yields some interesting revelations. For example: Kotkaniemi’s 134 shots on goal were only 10 behind Calder Trophy winner Elias Pettersson, with the difference in their production coming from Pettersson’s significant 19.4–8.2 edge in shooting percentage.
Some of that gap can be chalked up to skill, of course, but it might also suggest that Kotkaniemi wasn’t as far off offensively as he may have felt following a 34-point season. His underlying numbers were very strong in sheltered usage, with the Canadiens enjoying a decided edge over opponents in shot attempts and expected goals when he was on the ice at even strength.
It all points to us likely seeing more of No. 15 during his second tour of duty around the NHL.
“We haven’t talked about that yet, but hopefully if I play well enough I will get more ice time,” said Kotkaniemi.
The adjustments he went through as a rookie came on a couple different levels. First there was a new language, new culture and new country — not to mention his standing as a person of high public interest in arguably the most emotional hockey market in the world.
Kotkaniemi remembers looking at a bank of TVs during development camp in Montreal last summer and seeing his face on multiple channels at the same time. He certainly hadn’t experienced anything like that while playing for his hometown Pori Assat in Finland’s top league.
“It’s hard to go in the grocery store, but I think it’s part of the job,” said Kotkaniemi. “That’s the difference between Finland and Canada. People ask [for] pictures and signatures and in Finland they just stare at you and watch you.”
On the ice, he faced much higher-skilled opponents that he only really knew from video games or YouTube highlights. Three, in particular, stood out.
“I think everyone knows that [Sidney] Crosby, [Connor] McDavid and [Nathan] MacKinnon, they’re pretty hard to catch,” said Kotkaniemi. “They’re pretty big fishes in the lake.”
At some point, it’s expected that his job will be to go head-to-head with that calibre of player each night. Remember that Scotty Bowman told NHL.com in January that he sees some similarities between Kotkaniemi and Jean Beliveau, and predicted that he’ll develop into Montreal’s No. 1 centre by age 22.
In the here and now, he’s one of the biggest reasons Habs general manager Marc Bergevin told reporters at his season-ending press conference, “we’re heading in the right direction.”
Kotkaniemi feels it, too.
“I think we are a pretty good young team with Carey [Price] and Shea [Weber as veterans],” he said. “I think we have a pretty good combo going on over there and we have a good prospect pool coming. So I think we will be a good contender in a few years.”
As for the coming weeks, Kotkaniemi is anxious to make his way back to Montreal in early September. He stayed there into May while recovering from minor arthroscopic surgery on his left knee after the season, and has spent just about enough time back home in Pori recuperating and recharging.
“Finally,” said Kotkaniemi. “The summer, I hate this. It’s too long.”