Canadiens select centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with third-overall pick

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, centre, of Finland, stands on stage after being selected by the Montreal Canadiens. (Michael Ainsworth/AP)

The Montreal Canadiens have selected centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.

The team has long been linked to Kotkaniemi, who rose in the rankings this spring thanks to a strong showing during the Under-18 world championship. The 17-year-old Finnish forward has all the makings of an NHL centre despite suiting up on the wing this past season with Assat of Finland’s top-tier professional league.

Kotkaniemi is the best centreman on the board and has earned a reputation for being a smart, skilled two-way playmaker who’s tough to knock off the puck. He had a strong rookie year with Assat, registering 10 goals and 19 assists for 29 points in 57 games — good for third on the roster in scoring. He’s under contract with the Finnish club for two more seasons.

“I’m mostly a playmaker, I think. I love to find some passing lanes. That’s my thing,” Kotkaniemi said following Friday’s draft, via the team’s website. “I also have a good shot. I need to use it a little bit more, I think. I’m a big guy. I love to go in the corners and battle hard.”

The Canadiens had been an intriguing team leading up to Friday’s draft, with many wondering if general manager Marc Bergevin might pull off a trade in his search for a true centreman in a draft heavy on talented wingers and rearguards. The GM made a splash one week ago when he sent centre/winger Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for winger Max Domi and there’s a sense he’s not done yet, with captain Max Pacioretty’s name appearing in plenty of rumblings.

Montreal possesses four second-round draft picks (35, 38, 56, 62) and a total of six selections within the first three rounds.

The Buffalo Sabres got things started Friday night with the selection of highly-touted Swedish defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, followed by the Carolina Hurricanes taking forward Andrei Svechnikov at No. 2.

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