MONTREAL — Jesperi Kotkaniemi will be where he belongs when the puck drops on the NHL’s regular season on Oct. 3. The third-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft has earned his place on the Montreal Canadiens’ opening roster and will be the youngest player in the league when he dresses against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena this coming Wednesday.
How anyone could see that as a bad thing is mystifying.
There’s been a low grumble from different pockets of the Canadiens’ fan base over the last week about not rushing Kotkaniemi into action, about not burning a year of the centreman’s entry-level contract to play on a team that isn’t expected to accomplish much this season; a growing concern that not sending him back to Finland immediately will somehow stunt his growth and hinder his development, and that his confidence could be destroyed instantaneously in the NHL.
Now seems like an appropriate time to remind people of this opinion that Kotkaniemi is here to stay for as long as he deserves to stay for. Whether it’s for three games, or nine games, or 39 games, or for the entire season, how he plays will determine the outcome. But there should be no indignation about him being among the 23 players starting the season in Montreal because he’s proven he belongs for now.
Kotkaniemi’s rise has been steady since his arrival at rookie camp at the beginning of the month. He impressed with a goal and two assists through five exhibition games, but he blew the Canadiens away with his poise, his character, his positioning, his vision, his hockey sense and his implication in the tough areas of the ice.
Now’s the time to see if he can keep doing it.
It remains to be seen how the six-foot-two, 185-pound Finn will stand up to the physicality of meaningful NHL hockey, but there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll pass that test.
Sure, it’s questionable Kotkaniemi can withstand the rigours of an 82-game season after playing 57 games as a 17-year-old against men last season in Liiga (Finland’s top professional league). But subjecting him to all of that is a decision for a later date. Let’s see how he handles Game 1 before talking about how he’ll deal with Game 65.
Would he benefit from going back to Finland and having a lighter schedule that affords him more time to bulk up? Would it not be good for him to participate in this year’s world junior championship? The answer is yes in both cases, but starting the season in Montreal won’t necessarily prevent him from any of that.
And if it does, that can only be seen as a good thing. If we get to that point, it will mean Kotkaniemi is thriving with the Canadiens and that this experiment will have gone so much further than anyone could have anticipated on the night he was drafted back in June.
"When I say he’s surprised, I think our scouting staff knew how good he is and they did a great job in selecting this guy," Canadiens coach Claude Julien said on Friday. "But nobody knew how he would fit in with this group at this level. He just turned 18. So did he surprise us? He’s been a pleasant surprise that he’s handling himself extremely well. So that changes a lot of the thoughts we might have had before camp."
There’s also a strong chance that Kotkaniemi’s presence changes the entire complexion of the Canadiens’ lineup.
Winger Max Domi, who was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Canadiens for Alex Galchenyuk back on June 15, was expected to convert to centre to start the season. There’s a chance that experiment gets delayed now, with Domi taking his first reps of training camp at wing during Saturday’s morning skate.
Julien confirmed on Saturday that Kotkaniemi will remain on a line with Montreal’s highest-paid forward, Jonathan Drouin. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Domi line up on their right. And with Phillip Danault centring Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher, with Matthew Peca between Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen and Tomas Plekanec between Charles Hudon and Joel Armia, that would give the Canadiens four dangerous lines.
Forwards Nicolas Deslauriers and Andrew Shaw, who are both recovering from injuries, can serve as sandpaper options for Julien to insert at a later date. If neither player is ready to start the season, Nikita Scherbak and Jacob De La Rose will remain in a competition to push the expected starters out of the mix.
Some tough decisions await Julien down the road, including what to eventually do with Kotkaniemi. But it’s a luxury to have so many options at this stage of the game.
"It’s good news for [Kotkaniemi] and good news for us, too [that he’s starting with the Canadiens]," said Julien.
There’s no question about it.