Canadiens’ Kotkaniemi still has top-six potential, according to scouts

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Montreal Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi skates during warm-ups. (Graham Hughes/CP)

MONTREAL — When I think about Jesperi Kotkaniemi, I think of Joe Thornton.

Not Joe Thornton, the grizzled future Hall of Famer who is just two points shy of 1,500 in the NHL (though we’ll get to him shortly), but 18-year-old Joe Thornton, who played 55 games with the Boston Bruins in his rookie season back in 1997.

That Joe Thornton was a frequent healthy scratch that season. That Joe Thornton had three goals and seven points, topped 10 minutes of ice-time just nine times, and played less than five minutes in four of his final five games of the year.

As a sophomore, Thornton returned to Boston and, in a limited role, put up 16 goals and 41 points. And I do recall there being some conversation about him potentially being a bust as a first-overall pick in the ’97 draft. I definitely recall there being a lot of questions swirling around about whether or not the Bruins were doing him a disservice by playing him in the NHL so young.

It’s the same conversation people are having about Kotkaniemi’s situation right now, which has been amplified by Saturday’s announcement that the kid is being sent to the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket. Much of it is (predictably) of the revisionist variety—that the Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t have drafted him, that they shouldn’t have started him in the NHL, that they shouldn’t have kept him in the NHL and so on.

How quickly people forget that the Canadiens, barren at the centre ice position, had a chance to get the consensus best centre at the 2018 draft and took it; that it wasn’t an off-the-board pick as Kotkaniemi’s stock soared in the months leading up to his June selection; that the Canadiens didn’t expect him to be on their team last season but he forced his way on with a remarkable training camp; that he put up 11 goals and 34 points—or just under five times as many points as Thornton had in his rookie season—as the youngest player in the NHL; that he started his sophomore season still as one of the youngest players in the NHL, and with a groin injury that lingered through November and eventually sidelined him; and that he suffered a concussion at the beginning of December.

In the lead-up to Saturday’s decision—a decision that appeared to be looming for some time—we surveyed three professional scouts who watch the Canadiens frequently about what they believe Kotkaniemi will become once fully developed. On the condition of anonymity, they responded.

"I don’t know his situation off the ice, so I can only go on what I’ve seen from him on the ice," said the first scout. "He’ll be a top-six for sure. With his size, and his skill, that’s what he’s going to be. I like his vision, too.

"The thing with him is people are always going to say they should have maybe taken Tkachuk. But everyone knew Tkachuk was probably the most physically ready prospect in the draft and I think he’s eight or nine months older than Kotkaniemi." (Tkachuk was born in September 1999, Kotkaniemi in July 2000.)

Here’s what the second scout said: "I thought watching him last year that he was for sure going to be a No. 1 centre. Now I think he’ll be a good No. 2."

And the third scout said: "He needs to fill out, get stronger, get some confidence and he’ll be fine. I think they needed a centre pretty badly when they took him, and he’s going to develop into a pretty good one. Top-sixer for my money."

None of them said Kotkaniemi is the second coming of Thornton, but there wasn’t a single one who suggested his experience to date will ruin his development.

As we know now, Thornton’s early experiences certainly didn’t have the effect on him most assumed it would.

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And here’s what Canadiens coach Claude Julien said when he was asked to explain the decision to demote Kotkaniemi to the AHL at this stage.

"We don’t look at these things as negative things, we look at these things as positive things," Julien said before Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers. "That’s the problem here; we always look at the negative instead of the positive. And right now, it’s about a kid who’s had a couple of injuries, hasn’t quite found his game, is probably losing confidence too. So, we want him to gain some confidence, we want him to find his game. So, there’s nothing negative about that. I think it’s more positive, and that’s what we need to see."

With just six goals and eight points through 36 games, playing in a limited role with the Canadiens this season, it was time for a different approach with Kotkaniemi.

The team’s outlook about the player hasn’t changed, and it hasn’t been ruled out that he’ll be back in Montreal before long.

"He’s got great potential and that hasn’t changed since Day 1," said Julien. "I think he’s had a rough start, like some players have in different teams in different years, and they start off with some major injuries or some injuries that set them back and they never seem to get their rhythm going again. And I think as a young player you don’t want him losing his confidence, you want him to find his game back and the best way to do that is to go down there, play a lot and regain your confidence, and then when you do we’ll be more than happy to throw you in the lineup and put you where you belong in the NHL."

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