MONTREAL — A spleen injury could represent the type of adversity Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s never faced before, and his situation has to be as concerning for the Montreal Canadiens as it is for Kotkaniemi and his family.
First, it has to be concerning from just a general health standpoint because an injury suffered to an internal organ, no matter the severity, is, at the very least, highly concerning.
The good news, as Canadiens coach Claude Julien put it on Monday, is that the spleen injury Kotkaniemi suffered in the first period of a game against the Cleveland Monsters last Friday only cost him one night in a Cleveland-area hospital when initial concerns were that he’d be held under observation there for upwards of three days.
Kotkaniemi was discharged and sent home to Montreal on Saturday.
“I think we’ll probably get more (information) as we move forward,” Julien said on Monday afternoon before a team official confirmed Kotkaniemi wasn’t forced into surgery over the weekend and that it’s believed he won’t need to have surgery in the near future, barring recommendations from Canadiens doctors, whom he’s scheduled to consult with over the coming 24-to-48 hours.
If that proves to be true, it’s obviously a huge relief.
But, without being insensitive, Kotkaniemi’s health isn’t the only thing to be worried about for all parties involved here. His development is obviously front of mind, as well.
It was a season that started off on the wrong foot for the 19-year-old who took big strides as the NHL’s youngest player last year. His game lagged in training camp, he carried a nagging groin injury through October—and it showed with his limited production of just two goals and an assist in 12 games before he was shut down—and things didn’t exactly go swimmingly upon his return to play in the third week of November.
Then, right as Kotkaniemi appeared as though he was starting to hit his stride, this hit from Colorado Avalanche defenceman Nikita Zadorov concussed him and knocked him out of action from Dec. 5-27.
Confidence seemed ever elusive for the Pori, Finland native over the next month, in the lead up to his demotion to Laval.
But it was clearly on the rise in the AHL, where Kotkaniemi had posted a goal and 12 assists in 12 games (and some of the first period of last Friday’s game) before he took the hit from 31-year-old bruiser Brett Gallant that caused the damage he’s currently dealing with.
The hope has to be that Kotaniemi’s injury turns out to be as minor as it can be and that he can continue to build on the positive momentum he was gaining in Laval in short order. Research indicates that a bruised spleen could take as little as two weeks to heal and, in an ideal world, that would be the prognosis Koktaniemi is given.
Canadiens forward Paul Byron outlined a different reality Kotkaniemi could be forced to deal with.
“I believe he’s done for the year with the spleen,” Byron said on Monday before clarifying that was only his speculation and that neither he, nor his teammates, had been given any confirmation about that from the Canadiens or Kotkaneimi.
“He’s got a big summer ahead of him,” Byron continued. “He’s such a young player, he’s got a tremendous skill set, (he’s) very, very intelligent and he’s still so young, still so raw. I think things were going pretty well for him in Laval and he was finding his game a little bit. To see the injury—it’s unfortunate. He’s got a long path ahead for recovery, but he’s got a lot of time get better and be a better player.”
It’s essential for that process to unfold quickly—both for Kotkaniemi, but also for the Canadiens, who are hoping the roster reset general manager Marc Bergevin started in the summer of 2018 begins to bear fruit in the way of a playoff berth.
But if Kotkaniemi’s unable to play in any more games with the Rocket this year, if he can’t participate in playoff games — Laval is in the thick of the race with 15 games remaining— or if his summer training is affected by this injury, that’s obviously going to hinder the plan.
And if that proves to the be the case, it will indeed present a challenge like Koktaniemi’s never faced before. We’re talking about a player who’s dealt with relatively few injuries over his hockey career.
There was the knee issue that required a procedure in the spring of 2016, one that kept him out until November of the following season, but outside of that—and an arthroscopic procedure done last April to correct a chronic minor knee injury—he’s generally had a clean bill of health.
This season has been different. There’s already been a great deal of strife for Kotkaniemi to overcome, and the last thing he needs is another obstacle in his way as he faces down the pressure of not only trying to re-establish himself as an NHL player but also trying to show he can be the kind of impactful player the Canadiens expected when they drafted him third overall in 2018.
Canadiens centre Phillip Danault knows Kotkaniemi can get there.
“I don’t doubt his skill at all,” he said on Monday. “I think he just needs to understand a couple of things to play in the big league. This is the big league, the best league in the world, so night after night you have to be ready and play hard.”
Kotkaniemi has to get healthy first, and both he and the Canadiens have to hope there’s a short path to that happening.