Case for Kotkaniemi staying grows stronger in Canadiens win

Arturri Lehkonen and Xavier Ouellet had two goals apiece as the Canadiens beat up on Garret Sparks to beat up the Maple Leafs 5-1.

At the risk of spilling too much ink about Jesperi Kotkaniemi during this exhibition season, we’re writing about him again because the story he’s authoring is impossible to ignore.

The third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft was arguably the best player on the ice as his Montreal Canadiens beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-1 in Monday’s pre-season game. Through 15:38, he set up the game’s first goal, recorded three shot attempts, had two steals, finished plus-3 and made something happen on nearly every one of his 18 shifts.

We get it, these were not the same Maple Leafs who are betting favourites (according to to win this year’s Stanley Cup. In fact, the roster coach Mike Babcock iced on Monday has a better chance of winning the AHL’s Calder Cup this season. But that doesn’t detract from what Kotkaneimi did on a Canadiens side that had few of its best players dressed.

At this point, the 18-year-old Finn has gone from having to play his way into a regular-season trial with the Canadiens to having to play his way out of one.

Before departing for Toronto, Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked if he and the members of his team’s brass have a difficult decision to make in terms of what to do with Kotkaniemi.

"Yes, we do," he said twice. "We look at the possibilities so far, [and] we needed to see how he was going to handle himself. And if people would have seen his first game in Laval (a loss to the Ottawa Senators at the NHL Rookie Showdown two weeks ago) they would have said: ‘This guy has no chance.’ But you look at him today, he’s a different player. I guess we kept an open mind and right now I think that’s why he’s still here and that’s why he’s still playing. We’ll have a tough decision to make at the end of training camp."

Kotkaniemi made it a harder one with his play between Joel Armia and Michael Chaput in Monday’s win.

It’s quite a twist, even if the end result still ends up being the one most would have predicted back on draft day—with Kotkaniemi returning to Finland to pursue his development.

What the Canadiens should be asking themselves right now is: What’s the rush to go down that road?

If Kotkaniemi earns some regular-season playing time, it would hardly be a bad thing. There’s nothing that can happen to him—short of a devastating injury—that would significantly jilt his confidence over a nine-game trial. It would be a huge boost for him just to get that opportunity, and it would unquestionably be good for his development to play and practice alongside NHLers for as long as possible.

At this point, the Canadiens should also be weighing the benefits of keeping Kotkaniemi in North America regardless of whether or not he starts in Montreal.

Sure, a lighter schedule with Assat in the Finnish Liiga would enable him to add muscle mass quicker and to develop away from the spotlight. The chances of him going back and dominating there are strong, which makes it that much more enticing of an option. But once you send him there, bringing him back becomes a complicated matter.

There would be no harm in having Kotkaniemi play some games to start the season in Montreal before sending him to the AHL’s Laval Rocket, with whom he can continue to adjust to North American hockey and be readily available to the Canadiens for a call-up.

"I think he has to play on North American ice," Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin told Sportsnet after skating alongside Kotkaniemi in Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. "Look how quickly he’s adjusted already. I don’t think you want him going back and forth with that, but that’s just my opinion."

It’s a hard one to disagree with.

If playing in these parts becomes too much for the kid to handle down the line, he can always be sent back to his native Pori in a hurry. But if he excels here—and based on what we’ve seen so far, there’s no reason to doubt that he will—he could prove to be a valuable member of the Canadiens now or at a later point this season.

As it stands, the team’s depth at centre at the NHL level is less than optimal. If one of their top-two pivots goes down with an injury at any point, there won’t be anyone waiting in the wings who can offer the type of game Kotkaniemi plays—and that’s a problem for a team that’s still aiming for a playoff spot this season.

"We saw it on the first goal—when he’s on the ice, good things happen," Julien said to reporters after Monday’s game. "It’s impressive, especially for young player who’s 18. I continue to repeat myself, but he keeps getting better."

So long as that’s the case, you keep him around.

The decision on whether or not to do so should become clearer after Wednesday’s game against a Maple Leafs roster that should include one of—or possibly both—Auston Matthews or John Tavares. Julien gets to set the matchup and if he’s seriously considering keeping Kotkaniemi in Montreal, he’d be wise not to shelter him from it.

If Kotkaniemi passes a test like that, there will be at least one more pre-season column dedicated to his play from yours truly.

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