WINNIPEG — You could see signs of it in nearly every one of the 18 shifts Jesperi Kotkaniemi skated in the Montreal Canadiens‘ 6-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday: That slight hesitation that makes all the difference between confident and timid play.
It was obvious early in the game, when the 18-year-old took a sharp cut in front of his own net with the puck and was stripped of it, that he was slightly out of his depth. He fortunately recovered with a strong defensive play to negate a scoring chance, but his performance took a dip from that point forward.
And it was early in the third period, with the Canadiens trailing by just a goal, that Kotkaniemi bobbled a pass from Victor Mete at centre ice, leading to a goal for Riley Nash, who intercepted the puck for a breakaway and put it past an outstretched Carey Price on the rebound to make it 4-2 Columbus.
The kid was frazzled. His play was loose, if not costly, and his swagger was lacking in nearly every facet of the game. Winning only one of eight faceoffs was among the glaring pieces of evidence of the fact. Another was his performance on the power play, which he was taken off of at Friday’s practice.
Now you have to think Kotkaniemi’s place in the lineup for this Saturday’s must-win game against the Winnipeg Jets is anything but assured.
Not that Canadiens coach Claude Julien was forthcoming with his plans for this all-important contest.
“I haven’t got my lineup ready for tomorrow,” Julien said from MTS Centre.
It’s just when he was asked about whether or not the long season had caught up to Kotkaniemi, he started listing reasons for why that might in fact be the case.
“Everybody right now is dealing with all little issues and all that stuff,” Julien said. “But at the same time I keep saying he’s 18 years old, he’s playing more hockey than he ever has. The pace has picked up, he’s learning from this and he can only get better and grow from that. But there’s no doubt he’s probably frustrated because he’s always had success throughout his career but he’s now playing in the best league in the world. So there’s still a lot that he can learn from that and no doubt he’s learning from what he’s going through right now.”
It just so happens the stakes might be a little too high at the moment for that process to continue to be trial by fire for Kotkaniemi. Montreal is on the playoff bubble, tied in points with the Blue Jackets (90) and one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes, who sit in the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference. That the Canadiens have played one more game than both those teams puts even more onus on them to take care of their own business, and the challenge they face to do that — starting against the Central Division-leading Jets — might be too much for the kid to handle right now.
Kotkaniemi’s had an impressive debut in the NHL, producing 11 goals and 34 points in 76 games. But if the rookie’s physically banged up, that’s one strike against him.
The fact that Saturday’s game is on the road, where Kotkaniemi has yet to score a goal this season, is another factor that has to be considered in Julien’s decision. That it’s against a Jets team that is tied for the fourth-most wins on home ice this season (25) is something for the coach to mull over as well.
“They’re a hard team to play against in this building,” said Kotkaniemi’s linemate, Jonathan Drouin. “In this building they come out flying. The fans get into it early, and if they get a couple of goals early it’s hard for us to get back into it.”
If Julien doesn’t want to expose Kotkaniemi to that for the very first time while his team is battling for its season, and if he doesn’t wish to play him against a heavy, physically imposing team that has control of the match-ups, it’s understandable. Especially in light of how Kotkaniemi played on Thursday.
And there’s a chance scratching Kotkaniemi — if Julien does in fact do that — has as much to do with sparking his linemates as it does anything else. Drouin, in particular, is a player the Canadiens have leaned on heavily for offensive production this season, but they haven’t gotten more than six points out of him since he put up four of his 53 points in a 5-2 win over the Jets at the Bell Centre on Feb. 7.
That was 22 games ago, and Drouin has gone pointless in 20 since.
“We need him and we need everybody else,” said Julien. “Jonathan, when he’s at his best, is a really good player. And I think at this stage now we need everybody to give their best and hopefully be difference-makers in those games, so Jonathan is capable of doing that.”
But Drouin hasn’t been able to do it with Kotkaniemi this season, with the two putting up just three points each in over 140 minutes at 5-on-5 together (according to naturalstattrick.com).
It’s something that has to change immediately if the two are going to play together in Winnipeg, but that possibility is up in the air as of right now.