Think about this: the 20-year-old has an opportunity to change the optics of his sophomore season, to turn what was widely perceived to be a big step back in his development into a considerable step forward.
The door is wide open for Kotkaniemi to gain the most valuable experience of his career to date. And, above all else, he has a chance to prove he’s worthy of the role that was envisioned for him when the organization drafted him third overall in 2018.
If it was, at first, (reasonably) assumed Kotkaniemi was most likely competing for a depth role and merely serving as a placeholder for Max Domi, who is a Type 1 diabetic and waiting to decide whether or not he’ll join the team in Brossard in the coming days, Canadiens coach Claude Julien dispelling that notion on Tuesday was a significant development.
That the coach first went out of his way to praise Kotkaniemi, in response to a question about rookie Nick Suzuki, was an indication the kid will at least have a chance to work himself into the lineup. That’s something Kotkaniemi wasn’t even assured of when he touched down in Montreal last week.
But this? This was something else.
"Well, what I’d like to think, and what I’d like for Kotkaniemi to think, is that this week and next week, if he can continue to show us how well he’s progressed…," Julien said before concluding, "Just because right now Max isn’t here doesn’t mean it automatically goes back to Kotkaniemi that’s going to be moved out of (a line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen). We’ll make those decisions, as I said to everybody else, as we move forward here."
— Eric Engels (@EricEngels) July 15, 2020
If they had been made before we got here, it was hard to imagine Kotkaniemi being pencilled into a secure role of any kind, let alone one on the third line.
The Pori, Finland native struggled right out of the gate in September. Shortly after the season began, after he produced just two goals in October, he was parked for two weeks to heal from a groin injury that had been persisting since the start of training camp. And right as he appeared to be gaining rhythm in early December, he took a devastating hit from Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov that concussed him and sidelined him for close to a month.
By the time January rolled around, Kotkaniemi had become a player Julien frequently referenced in answers to questions that had nothing to do with him — and it certainly wasn’t to sing his praises.
The kid’s production was non-existent, he was hardly effective without the puck and his confidence was shot. Julien had run out of patience with the process as the mistakes piled up and the Canadiens slipped further and further out of playoff contention.
Kotkaniemi’s frustration had clearly reached its tipping point, as well. That he classified his demotion to the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Jan. 18 as "an exciting opportunity" confirmed it — even if he was genuinely excited to just have the chance to play a more significant role and to be allowed to make certain mistakes that can be forgiven at that level.
It had to have been a huge relief for the Canadiens, and certainly for Kotkaniemi, that he produced 13 points in 12 games with the Rocket after producing only eight points in 36 games with the big club.
But a spleen injury suffered in that 12th game, an injury that was supposed to keep him out of action for the rest of the season, made Kotkaniemi an afterthought in any return-to-play scenario the NHL and NHLPA were considering between mid-March and early-May.
Months of rest — and the NHL’s extensive pause due to COVID-19 — changed that for Kotkaniemi, and now it appears as though his performance through three days of Canadiens camp has changed it in a significant way.
"Well, I think the biggest thing (when) we sent him down… we talked about it yesterday… his skating wasn’t at the level it was before, and because of that his whole game was falling apart," said Julien on Wednesday. "When you don’t have the pace, you’re trying to make plays (and) plays are getting cut off. He was getting frustrated things weren’t going as well as he was used to seeing and I think his confidence was obviously being affected by that. But when you look at him now and you see how well he’s skating, a lot of things are falling into place, which at the time weren’t. So that’s probably the biggest thing here.
"Is he going to need coaching? Absolutely. Like everybody else, there’s certain things. Those good players, they want to make good plays all the time and, sometimes, plays aren’t there. Some of that comes from experience, some of it will get better with time. We have to be patient, and at the same time we have to teach. And I think right now, I keep saying it, I like what I’ve seen so far because his skating is back to where I think we saw it at its best at one point and the rest of the game seems to be slowly falling into place."
Even teammate Phillip Danault, who had his own work to worry about through his first three practices since March, has been impressed.
"I’ve only seen him in practice, so it’s hard to tell," Danault cautioned. "But I can tell you his shot is real devastating. He got a little tougher, a little bigger, obviously gained some maturity out there. But, like I said, I’ve only seen him in three practices, so it’s hard to tell. I need to see him in a game situation. But I like what I see so far."
If you’re a Canadiens fan, you have to like what you’re hearing (or reading).
It had to be encouraging to find out Kotkaniemi could participate in this training camp after the severity of his injury in March put that possibility in doubt. To know he’s making an impression immediately — especially after his tumultuous season — has to be reassuring.
And this comment from Julien has to be a welcome sight, too.
"This guy here is a future player that should be with this organization for a long time, so there’s no doubt you have to work with him," the coach. "In his case, I think the best thing to let K.K. do right now is to let him come in, let him skate, let him play, let him gain his confidence. He doesn’t need me in his face the first day having to tell him, ‘I want you to do this and that.’
"What I’ve seen so far has been, like I said, encouraging. So I’m letting that ride a little bit. But there’s no doubt that we will be sitting down and having a conversation at some point."
That it’s a priority for Julien to do that in short order says much about the opportunity Kotkaniemi has in front of him.
If the six-foot-two centre can seize it, it will be a massive development for both him and the Canadiens.