When the scrawny six-foot-two, 185-pound Finn was picked third overall by the Canadiens at this year’s NHL Draft, consensus was that he was still at least a year away from piercing through to the NHL; that the only reason he was chosen as high was because Montreal was in desperate need of centres and he was the best available option at the position; that his skating wasn’t up to snuff with some of the players chosen directly after him, like Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina, who both scored goals for their respective teams in pre-season action on Saturday. And all of that might prove to be true when decisions finally get made on Kotkaniemi’s immediate future.
But if he continues to defy all of that perception — which is something he certainly did in his team’s come-from-behind 3-2 win over Tkachuk’s Ottawa Senators on Saturday — it will be a great problem for the Canadiens to have to sort out before the regular season gets started on Oct. 3 in Toronto. They have 15 forwards signed to one-way contracts and Joel Ward performing admirably on a tryout, so figuring out who gets to start with Montreal is already complicated. But figuring out what to do at centre, if Kotkaniemi forces his way into the conversation, is the real tricky part.
As it stands, the plan is to convert Max Domi to centre from the wing. The backup plan is to put Jonathan Drouin there. And both players have shown in their limited experience at the position that it’s not the ideal place for either of them.
Phillip Danault is 1A or 1B up the middle (depending on how you see his line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar), and Matthew Peca and Tomas Plekanec are filling the void on the team’s other two lines. After that, the options at centre are scarce.
That’s why Kotkaniemi defying the odds and taking a job — we know it won’t be handed to him — could change the whole picture for the better.
"It’s difficult to say at this stage, ‘Yeah, he has a job here,’" said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "But it’s a certainty that we see good things from him. When it’s all said and done we’ll make a decision on whether he’s capable of playing here or whether he’ll be better off with us giving him a chance to mature in another environment. He’s an 18-year-old, but I really like what he’s shown since the beginning of this camp. And he’s continuing to gain experience."
The improvement has been remarkable for Kotkaniemi from when we saw him take his first strides in a Canadiens uniform at the Rookie Showcase in Laval two weeks ago to when we saw him skating in Domi’s spot between Drouin and Joel Armia in Saturday’s game.
"Those two made it easy for me," Kotkaniemi said.
"He made it easy for us," Drouin countered.
And he wasn’t just talking about the nifty play Kotkaniemi made in the first period when he curled off the side boards, cruised to the slot and uncorked a shot that drilled the crossbar behind Senators goalie Craig Anderson.
Drouin wasn’t even on the ice for that play.
He wasn’t talking about the two other posts Kotkaniemi hit in the game, either.
"I like the way he processes the game," said Drouin. "He’s not the biggest guy, but I like the way he’s implicated in the corners and in front of the net.
"He had three posts, but the way he plays the game — he was skating with it, he was calm with the puck, he wasn’t rushing plays and he wasn’t getting rid of the puck. That’s something you get excited to see with a young guy. To have that poise, have that composure and to play that game at such a level…It’s his first couple of weeks in North America, too, so I expect him to get even better."
It would be a divergence for Kotkaniemi if that didn’t prove to be the case.
"He’s already very good defensively," said Danault. "He’s strong on the puck. He’s also good offensively. He’s got an NHL shot already. It depends on [Canadiens general manager] Marc [Bergevin] and how he sees it; if he wants to make him stronger [by keeping him out of the NHL this season]. It’s going to be a big decision and a tough decision for those first games to see if he’s staying or not.
"I think he feels like he’s part of the team already. He’s not overconfident, but I feel his vibe and his energy, and he’s getting more confident on the ice."
It’s plain to see, but that confidence has to amount to goals and assists if Kotkaniemi is going to remain in Montreal to start. So far he only has one goal in three exhibition games, and the competition is only going to get stronger over the coming week.
On Saturday, the Senators dressed top prospects like Tkachuk, Colin White, Rudolfs Balcers and Logan Brown, but their NHL contingent only consisted of Anderson, forwards Matt Stone, Bobby Ryan, Chris Tierney and Magnus Paajarvi and defencemen Cody Ceci. How Kotkaniemi handles himself against the likes of superstars Auston Matthews and John Tavares in pre-season games the Canadiens have scheduled against the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday and Wednesday will give Bergevin, Julien and the Canadiens a stronger sense of whether or not he can handle the next phase.
It wasn’t anticipated back in June that Kotkaniemi would be prepared to pass that test at this stage of the game. But if he does, that can only be seen as a huge positive for the Canadiens.