TORONTO — The Montreal Canadiens want Jesperi Kotkaniemi to be the guy, not just any guy.
That’s why on Feb. 1, with 115 NHL games under his belt, the club sent him to their AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket.
Prior to the demotion, the baby-faced, 19-year-old had been pointless in six games, with his goal on Jan. 9 breaking up another five-game point drought. The 2018 third-overall pick was averaging just 13 minutes of ice time — on a team fighting to keep its slim playoff hopes alive — and watched from the press box as his teammates defeated the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 on Jan. 30, just two days before he was shipped off to Laval.
But since he joined the Rocket, Kotkaniemi has collected seven points across four games, including one during Laval’s 5-2 loss to the Toronto Marlies on Sunday, and, more importantly, has gotten the chance to stay on the ice, regardless of the results.
“He’s a talented player that hasn’t been the guy for two years now. So now we’re asking him to be the guy, and we put him in enough situations so we can see the (failings) on some plays, some focus and assignments,” said Rocket coach Joel Bouchard.
“It’s the overall game that we’re (trying) to get with him over here and (the 200-foot one). So you know what? When a guy goes to the NHL, he’s got a limited role, he’s playing with NHL players that can cover up for him and there’s more on the frame when he gets over here — now he becomes the guy — so it’s (up to) him to lead the way with his play and, to me, he’s been doing his best, and then sometimes his best isn’t good enough.”
Ryan Poehling, who joined his Kotkaniemi in the AHL from the Canadiens on Saturday, also knows the difficulty of dwindling ice time and the value of opportunity.
“At the end of the day, the Montreal team, they have a lot of good players and a lot of them are centremen. I mean, it’s not good for him to play 10 minutes a night, he’s a skill guy, right? So he needs to play a lot of time. So I think down here he gets the chance, which he’s been able to succeed at, too,” he said.
Expectations were high for Kotkaniemi coming into the season. Despite being the youngest player in the league during the 2018-19 campaign, he put up 34 points in 79 games. Ironically, the six-foot-two, 184-pound centre had also drawn rave reviews for his defensive acumen, with some going as far as labelling him a leading candidate for the Selke Trophy.
Has a rookie ever won the Selke? Because Jesperi Kotkaniemi should be the front runner in our opinion… and he’s 18 years old
— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) March 5, 2019
There was certainly a case. Kotkaniemi boasted an Even-Strength Defence Goals Above Replacement of 5.1, which was behind only Dominik Simon, Marcus Foligno and Alex Kerfoot among forwards, and an Expected Goals Against of minus-2.03 at 5-on-5, according to Evolving-Hockey. (GAR is hockey’s equivalent to baseball’s WAR, which attempts to assign a single value over a replacement player using a number of built-in metrics).
This season, Kotkaniemi has a minus-3.5 EVD GAR and a plus-1.5 Expected Goals Against at 5-on-5, in addition to just eight points through 36 games with the Canadiens.
Poehling said the rangy centre is at his best when he’s playing keep-away with his opponents.
“I think for him, it’s just playing with the puck on his stick,” he said.
“I mean, he’s got a lot of skill, so if he can play with the puck on his stick and have his teammates do the same thing, it takes away from the other team playing offence, and they play defence. So I think, when he does that well, it pays off for him.”
Likewise, Bouchard said Kotkaniemi doesn’t need to be a “defensive player,” but rather needs to learn how to play in all three zones.
“He’s got a lot of talent — there’s no question there. Now he has to put it all together, and it’s going to come with some failing,” he said.
“When he plays well he’s alert on everything, he’s moving his feet, and … it’s the experience of the North American game (where) we need to work with him — where there are assignments that come a lot quicker, especially for centremen … so where to position yourself, not to lose your guy in certain situations.”
And Bouchard is hoping he can help forge the Finnish teen into a responsible forward through fire.
“Now he’s overexposed, meaning that he plays a lot of minutes. We give him the tough minutes, too — versus an AHL coach that will give him the easy minutes,” he said.
“That’s where we are with him is to make him realize this assignment and there’s a lot to becoming a two-way centre more than just making plays. It’s taking charge of the faceoff, it’s taking charge all over the ice, it’s playing against the better defenceman. So finding ways to be productive or to be effective through the adversity of the game.”
Despite his flaws, when he was with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi remained the seventh youngest player in the NHL, and time is in his favour as the club looks to develop him into not just the guy who can be counted on in Laval, but one who can carry the burden in Montreal.
“Listen, he’s a 19-year-old guy that’s got a lot of potential — a lot of talent. We all see it. We all like it,” said Bouchard.
“He plays very fast in his head, he can make little plays to guys that are wide open, and you (saw) it again tonight where he can dish the puck very well. Now (we need to) make sure that he’s got more pace, a little bit, more hardness in this game, another dimension to be more accountable in some of the plays. So there’s nothing negative about him other than he’s a young, 19-year-old guy that’s learning the North American game.”