BROSSARD, Que.— “You can say I’m not playing well.”
Those were the words that came out of 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s mouth in the middle of our Wednesday conversation about his tumultuous sophomore season.
He made this statement unprompted. He said it because there is no hiding from the fact in Montreal, where every player’s game is publicly dissected on the daily—and to the nth degree. That’s especially the case for a recent third-overall draft pick who has produced just two goals and three points and has seen his average time on ice diminish by almost a full second from what it was when he was the youngest player in the National Hockey League a season ago.
This is hard. Admittedly, this is harder than anything this lanky Finnish kid has ever had to deal with over his short hockey career.
It begs the question as to whether or not Kotkaniemi is in the right place right now, even though he’s facing the situation head-on.
Nate Thompson, Kotkaniemi’s 35-year-old teammate, thinks it is.
“What he’s going through right now is only going to help him,” Thompson said on Wednesday. “I think you’d rather have a guy that cares and wants to be better and beats himself up than a guy who’s the alternative. This is just about maturing in the league and knowing how to handle different situations. He’s a kid, he’s 19-year-old, but he already has a pro mindset. You know it’s going to come for him here.”
Thompson very well might be right about that, and he makes an excellent point about Kotkaniemi’s character and dedication. And there’s no debating that, in the long run, facing adversity and overcoming it builds strength and enriches character.
But there’s plenty of doubt this experience Kotkaniemi’s having will pay immediate dividends and we’ve reached a point where the Canadiens need it to.
They’re a team that’s lost five straight games—the last two in downright embarrassing fashion—and with injuries to forwards Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, there’s a void begging to be filled by a talented, smart and versatile forward like the one Kotkaniemi proved to be en route to scoring 11 goals and 34 points in his rookie season.
There’s nothing that would make the kid happier than to do exactly that. He’s putting in extra work after practice every single day to try to make it happen. He’s leaning on veterans like Thompson and fellow Pori, Finland native Joel Armia for advice, and he said he’s been pouring over old highlights of his play from last year—and from years prior when, as he put it, “hockey felt fun.”
But if things continue to go for Kotkaniemi as they have, the Canadiens are going to have to weigh the long-term implications of keeping him around here versus giving him some time to regain his confidence in the American Hockey League.
It seems clear the latter hasn’t been an option the Canadiens have been too keen on exercising to this point. Whether it’s because they don’t like the optics of sending down such a highly-touted player and making a move that could negatively affect his confidence even further, or because they don’t have someone to call up right now that can bring what Kotkaniemi can when he’s on his game, or it’s a mix of both of those factors, there hasn’t been any indication from management as of yet that they want to send him to the Laval Rocket.
But how much longer can they afford to wait?
Kotkaniemi is down on himself right now, and it seems doubtful that’s going to change in an instant so long as he’s not scoring, so long as the Canadiens are giving up high-quality chances and not generating very many when he’s on the ice, and so long as he remains the third-least used forward on the team.
“He’s frustrated because he wants to do well,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien about Kotkaniemi on Monday. “His confidence is not where it should be because, obviously, we see a different player right now than we’ve seen in the past. He’s 19 years old. It’s not like he’s an older guy that’s been through it and knows how to handle it. He’s going through it for the first time.”
As Thompson said, there’s value in letting him ride it out.
But we can imagine there’s much internal debate going on behind the scenes as to whether or not that’s what’s best for him at the moment. It’s been trending this way since the first day of training camp and you have to think it’s coming to a head.
Don’t be mistaken, though. This isn’t a referendum on whether or not Kotkaniemi can play at this level. Again, he manufactured an impressive first season—especially when you consider his limited usage— and it’s obvious enough he has the tools to be an impactful player moving forward. It’s just that it’s been too long since he showed it.
Granted, missing seven games from Oct. 31-Nov. 15 with a groin strain didn’t help, but Kotkaniemi isn’t using that as an excuse.
He knows what he looks like when things are going right and he’s searching for a way back to that.
“When I’m on my game, I think it looks like I’m having fun,” Kotkaniemi said. “When I’m playing my best, I’m doing things and I’m keeping the puck. For me, it’s just having fun on the ice; buzzing a little bit everywhere. I’ve never been the flashy guy, I’ve just tried to do things right and get success through those things.”
Perhaps that’s the player we’ll see Thursday night, when the New Jersey Devils play the Canadiens at the Bell Centre.
Maybe all it will take for Kotkaniemi to regain his swagger is seeing the puck hit the back of the net, seeing a linemate finish a good pass he makes, or preventing the players he matches up against from producing at the other end.
But if it doesn’t happen for him, perhaps the best way back is through Laval.