Montreal Canadiens Prospect Report: Kotkaniemi leads promising 2018 draft

Jesperi Kotkaniemi talks with the media about his first NHL goal and how his family was asleep during it.

The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, which made the 2018 NHL Draft a bit of an outlier for the Montreal Canadiens.

Of course, no one was quite sure Montreal’s 2017 haul would turn out quite as well as it did. Ryan Poehling, Josh Brook, Cale Fleury and Cayden Primeau look like can’t-miss prospects, and the trade that brought Nick Suzuki into the fold has helped the Canadiens establish one of the deepest pools in the league.

None of it makes up for how things have turned out with the team’s first rounders from 2011-16, but let’s not open up old wounds. No, let’s stick with what’s fresh.

Here’s a look at the top-5 Canadiens prospects from the 2018 Draft.

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Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 18, C, Montreal Canadiens
First round, 3rd overall
Season to date: 25 GP | 3 G | 9 A | 12 P | -1

Kotkaniemi ranked second among NHL rookies in points just a week ago, producing at a point per game rate over a five-game stretch and notching 12 points in his first 21 games.

Now he’s down to seventh on the list, with linemates Artturi Lehkonen and Charles Hudon running colder than anyone else on the Canadiens. A bump up to the first unit of the NHL’s second-most woeful power play hasn’t mitigated that situation.

Not that there’s anything to be concerned about. If Kotkaniemi was playing regularly with at least one player who could finish, he’d be right up there with Elias Pettersson and Brady Tkachuk.

Points aside, there’s a lot more to like about what Kotkaniemi is doing as the NHL’s youngest player. He sees the ice so well, he’s rarely out of position, and he’s poised and confident with and without the puck.

He’s also adapting quickly. For instance, early in the season he took three minor penalties by getting his stick parallel to the ice and latching on—which is a staple of the European game he was playing a year ago in Finland. But he hasn’t taken one since.

Jesse Ylonen, 19, RW, Lahti Pelicans (Liiga)
Second round, 35th overall
Season to date: 24 GP | 5 G | 2 A | 7 P | +1

We haven’t seen Ylonen’s best just yet, but this is his first year in Finland’s Liiga and it takes time to earn trust and be counted on in a primary scoring role.

By all accounts, the upside is very high on this player. People are likely going to see that next month at the World Junior Championship, with Ylonen slated for big minutes with Team Finland.

He’s an explosive skater, a top-end shooter, and he’s got some size at 6-foot-1.

Alexander Romanov, 18, D, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Second round, 38th overall
Season to date: 24 GP | 0 G | 0 A | 0 P | +11

We thought it was a bit of a reach when the Canadiens called Romanov’s name 38th overall, and the fact he had zeros across the board in those relevant statistical categories appeared to have justified that thought.

Then we saw him do this at the recent CIBC Canada-Russia series on the OHL leg of the trip:

This guy is a physical force, a la Alexei Emelin, but is a much better skater and processes the game at another level.

Romanov’s in his first year in the KHL and he’s skating regular minutes with the league’s top team. There’s also a good chance he’ll be on Russia’s top pair at the upcoming WJC. So maybe the Canadiens weren’t off-base picking him where they did.

Jacob Olofsson, 18, C, Timra IK (SHL)
Second round, 56th overall
Season to date: 19 GP | 2 G | 4 A | 6 P | -3

Okay, we know. When we mention Olofsson you’re going to think about another 6-foot-2 Swede named Jacob, chosen in the second round by the Canadiens years ago.

But if this kid can turn out the way Jacob De La Rose did, with more than 130 games of NHL experience by age 23, what else can you really ask for from a second-rounder?

In truth—and we’re basing this purely on what we saw from Olofsson at Montreal’s July development camp—we see considerably more upside in this kid than we saw in De La Rose. Hockey sense stands out, and he’s got the hands, wheels and shot to be a (much) more productive player at the NHL level.

Brett Stapley, 19, C, University of Denver (NCAA)
Seventh round, 190th overall
Season to date: 12 GP | 3 G | 9 A | 12 P | +6

Hmmm… The Canadiens acquire the 190th pick in the draft from the Philadelphia Flyers and use it on a player who has started off his NCAA career on a very high note. Where have we seen this before?

In 2017 Trevor Timmins and his scouts got a seventh-rounder from Philly and took Cayden Primeau 199th overall with it—and the goaltender had a banner season as a true freshman at Northeastern. His story was remarkable.

Now Stapley is authoring an interesting season himself—scoring a point per game in his first season with Denver.


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