Not since Marilyn Monroe breathily sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John F. Kennedy has one dinner generated as much gossip as the Montreal Canadiens treating Jesperi Kotkaniemi to a steak at the draft combine in Buffalo.
News of the dinner was interpreted back in Montreal thusly:
• The Canadiens are so smitten with Kotkaniemi they’re going to use the third overall pick on the Finnish centre, who was pegged last fall as a late-first-rounder and actually played wing all season in the SM-liiga.
• Except the Canadiens are not that foolish and impulsive. So they’ll trade down a couple or four places, and then draft Kotkaniemi.
• Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin must hate Filip Zadina, the Czech winger nearly everyone figures should go third in the draft.
• And did Brady Tkachuk get a dinner invitation?
Kotkaniemi, who doesn’t turn 18 until July 6, had a meteoric spring surge on a lot of draft lists after his superb nine-point performance at the Under-18 world championship, where Finland won gold against the defending-champion Americans. This followed a regular season in which the 6-foot-2 forward, who projects as an NHL centre but played wing in Finland’s top pro league, had 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games as a rookie for Assat, the team coached by his father, Mikael Kotkaniemi.
Of course, no one is suggesting nepotism had anything to do with the ice time and opportunity Jesperi enjoyed with Assat.
Team: Assat (Finland)
From: Pori, Finland
Weight: 190 pounds
Patrik Laine, potentially the best Finnish forward to come along since Teemu Selanne, had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games in the same league before he was chosen second overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2016.
NHL Central Scouting ranks Kotkaniemi as the sixth European skater, up from No. 9 at mid-season.
Twenty-five teams interviewed him at the combine in Buffalo, and the Edmonton Oilers and Detroit Red Wings also took him out for dinner. Detroit picks sixth in Dallas, Edmonton 10th.
No one yet has broken the story about which team got the first dinner with Kotkaniemi, and whose steak he liked best.
But when he was scrummed by reporters after the combine and was told that the Canadiens were interested in drafting him, Kotkaniemi said: “I hope so.”
Bergevin is badly in need of a centre, and this draft is top-heavy in wingers and defencemen. For teams drafting by positional need, there could be a premium on centres like Kotkaniemi, Sweden’s Isac Lundestrom and Canadians Joe Veleno and Barrett Hayton.
But could Kotkaniemi really be the third player selected in Dallas?
“You have the emergence of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who I now think finds himself inside the top-10 when maybe before he was sitting in about that 15 spot,” Sportsnet analyst Sam Cosentino said after the combine. “That’s going to change the complexion of the first group of 10.”
Kotkaniemi is regarded as a 200-foot player, smart and strong on the puck, and capable of killing penalties and helping a power play. But there were questions at the start of the season about his skating, which has improved. Still, the Finn isn’t as quick as many of the forwards near the top of the draft. He also didn’t play centre when he was competing against men in the Liiga.
“I think I read the game very well and I find those passing lanes,” Kotkaniemi told EdmontonOilers.com. “I think I’m an OK skater but I need to improve my turning…my quick steps most.”
Kotkaniemi sees himself as similar in style to countryman Aleksander Barkov, the skilled and powerful 6-foot-3 centre the Florida Panthers drafted second in 2013.
“I think he’s a little bit of the same kind of player as me, but I try to be like him,” Kotkaniemi said. “He’s very calm when he’s on the ice and I like that.”