A Case Study Of Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s Time With The Montreal Canadiens

Following a tumultuous 2017-18 regular season that saw the Montreal Canadiens finish 28th overall in the NHL, the organization was poised to select fifth overall in the upcoming draft class. However, luck was on their side, and their lottery-eligible pick saw them move up to third overall. As is the case within any fanbase, suggestions were running rampant with who the organization should pick with what is often considered a franchise-altering selection.

At the time, the consensus draft pick was forward Filip Zadina, a scoring winger who inevitably went sixth overall to the Detroit Red Wings. In addition, Americans Brady Tkachuk, a power forward that went fourth overall to the Ottawa Senators, and Quinn Hughes, an offensive defenseman with top-pairing potential who fell to seventh overall for the Vancouver Canucks were also available. Instead, the Montreal Canadiens opted to draft based on positional need, an approach that is often frowned upon as it is almost always best to select the best player available.

With the third overall selection in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens selected Finnish-born centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi. While Kotkaniemi saw his draft stock rise due to his dominant performance during that year’s U18 tournament and found himself in the top-5 of several analysts’ predictions, many still considered the Montreal Canadiens selection to be a reach. Nonetheless, the consensus among those same analysts was that Kotkaniemi is a project pick with high-end potential who will need several years to develop before making an impact in the NHL.

Fast forward to September 4th, 2021, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi is no longer a member of the Montreal Canadiens. General Manager Marc Bergevin opted not to match the one-year, $6.1 million offer sheet tendered to Kotkaniemi by the Carolina Hurricanes organization. As compensation, Montreal received the Carolina Hurricanes’ first and third-round picks in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.

For the Montreal Canadiens to part ways with their third overall pick just three years into his young career seems like a perplexing decision; however, upon further analysis, it is not a surprising one. The Montreal Canadiens cap structure and Kotkaniemi’s development are clear indicators as to why this decision was made.

With Respect to Montreal Canadiens’ Cap Structure…

At the surface level, not matching the Carolina Hurricanes’ offer sheet makes financial sense for two reasons. First, Jesperi Kotkaniemi signing the offer sheet prevented the Montreal Canadiens from further assessing the centreman’s development through the signing of a bridge deal, which Marc Bergevin states would have been in the two-year range. While there was a bridge-deal in the works, Bergevin states the offer sheet came before it.

Second, Marc Bergevin cited that matching Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s offer sheet would complicate negotiations and their ability to sign other young players within the organization. While he did not specify, the general manager was likely referring to Nick Suzuki (RFA in 2022), Alexander Romanov (RFA in 2022), and Cole Caufield (RFA in 2023).

Considering his reasoning, it is easy to see why Marc Bergevin made this decision. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has yet to show enough progress in his own development to warrant the $6.1 million investment and the ensuing effects it may have in retaining other players on the team.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s Development from 2018-2021

It is no secret that the Montreal Canadiens are not known for their ability to develop players from within their organization. Although the tides seem to be turning with players such as Cole Caufield and Alexander Romanov, the team still has little to show in the ways of development.

However, it is important to note that player development is a two-way street, and it takes both the player and organization cooperating to ensure optimal success. In the case of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this notion holds particularly true as there were times where both sides could have done better.

As previously mentioned, many analysts and scouts predicted Jesperi Kotkaniemi would require several years of development before playing in the NHL. Heading into the 2018-19 season, the expectation was that Jesperi Kotkaniemi would attend the team’s training camp, and then head back to Liiga’s Assat Pori where he would play for the entirety of that year. However, the Montreal Canadiens had different plans for their third overall pick. In October 2018, an 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi made his debut for the Montreal Canadiens as the youngest player in the NHL, and at the centre position no less.

The 2018-19 regular season is often looked back fondly as Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s best overall year to date. In 79 games played, Kotkaniemi recorded 34 points, 66 hits (11 goals, 23 assists), a 60.5 CF%, and a 45% in the faceoff circle (per Hockey Reference). Throughout the year, many were impressed with how well Kotkaniemi was adapting to the league, and if management and the coaching staff were asked, they would say they made the right choice. However, today Marc Bergevin is singing a different tune, as during his press conference, the general manager admitted to Kotkaniemi having possibly been rushed and not sent back to play another year in Finland.

The consequences of rushing Kotkaniemi into the NHL were highlighted throughout the 2019-20 regular season, where virtually nothing went right for the player, and he recorded only eight points (six goals, two assists) in 36 games with a 42.8% in the face-off circle. In fairness, Kotkaniemi also dealt with both a groin injury and a concussion that saw him miss a cumulative 16 games. However, in the extended stretches where he was in the lineup, he showed signs that his play had regressed. As his production went down, so did his confidence. It was around this time where several analysts and members of the media began to question whether Kotkaniemi should have been playing in the NHL at all, and whether it would be best for him to spend time in the minors.

In February, Kotkaniemi was sent down to the American Hockey League to play for the Laval Rocket, and didn’t shy away from making his frustration known, as he mentioned “didn’t play that much” under former Canadiens head coach Claude Julien. Kotkaniemi would go on to record 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) in just as many games played, although his campaign would abruptly end to due to a spleen injury. However, the NHL’s shutdown and subsequent return-to-play plan for the 2020 playoffs would allow Kotkaniemi the time to recover from his injury and prove he belongs on the team’s NHL roster.

Kotkaniemi did ended up playing a pivotal in helping the Canadiens eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifying series. His passes were strategic, he created space through his physicality and scored two goals in the five-game series. One of the team’s best forwards going into the first round of the playoffs alongside Philip Danault and Nick Suzuki, Kotkaniemi would also add another two goals in a Game 2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers.

While the Canadiens would eventually lose the series in six games, the coaching staff and management iterated how impressed they were with their young core down the middle. Combine that with the additions of Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson during the 2020 offseason, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki were poised to have the support they need to accelerate their development.

Coming off an impressive performance in the Toronto, Kotkaniemi would once again see his production regress relative to his rookie season. On the surface level, his stats were an improvement over his sophomore season, registering five goals and 15 assists (nine primary, six secondary) and finishing with a 47.9% in the face-off circle in 56 games.

Once again, Jesperi Kotkaniemi would like unrecognizable in the playoffs compared to the regular season. Whilst he was scratched in Game 1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kotkaniemi scored three goals in the following six games, one of them an overtime winner in Game 6. Although he was a healthy scratch in games 4 and 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals, he struggled mightily in the series, amassing 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in 29 playoff games.

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A Disconnect between the Player and Organization?

It would not be surprising to think that the Montreal Canadiens’ coaching staff and management were expecting Jesperi Kotkaniemi to be further along in his development by this point in time, thus explaining their interest in signing him to a two-year bridge and not committing long-term. While he has improved on the side of the game, there still remain many question marks. Nevertheless, the organization’s fault was starting Kotkaniemi in the NHL when he was just 18-years old. As the NHL is not a development league, he should have spent time in Finland, and eventually the AHL.

While the organization must shoulder some of the blame for Kotkaniemi’s development, Marc Bergevin may not be incorrect in thinking there are some negative trends he recognized in the centreman’s game that may not change.

Although he did not go into specifics, there are some noticeable discrepancies in Kotkaniemi’s game, especially considering his production level in the regular season compared to the playoffs.

For example, Kotkaniemi’s shooting percentage in the regular season has always been significantly lower. Via ESPN, in his rookie season (2018-19), Kotkaniemi finished with 11 goals on 134 shots for an 8.2 SH%. In the following year (2019-20), Kotkaniemi saw a slight increase to a 10.9 SH% with two goals on 55 shots; however, this number likely would have dropped if he played the full season, given his inconsistencies that year. Where these numbers take a drastic turn is in the 2020 playoffs where Kotkaniemi scored four goals on 11 shots for a 36.4 SH%.

Kotkaniemi’s last season in Montreal illustrates another case of this discrepancy, as during the regular season, he finished with five goals on 87 shots, resulting in a 5.6 SH%. Once again, this stat would skyrocket, as Kotkaniemi would go on to score five goals on 28 shots for a 17.9 SH%.

Considering the sample size of regular season games, it is difficult to see how Kotkaniemi’s postseason production is sustainable, especially considering how much time he takes winding up his shot. It will be interesting to see whether this is a coachable trait that can land Kotkaniemi’s shooting percentage somewhere between his regular and postseason production.

Moreover, Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s skating has been a commonly criticized aspect of his game. While there have been improvements since his rookie season, they have been minor ones. While he is by no means a bad skater, Kotkaniemi still often loses balance and falls over, losing the puck in the process.

In his end-of-year presser, Kotkaniemi mentioned that he will continue working on improving his skating, but it would not be surprising if it remains a weakness of his during some situations, thus requiring him to offset it through other means. Whether this issue can be improved through coaching than his shooting is difficult to answer.

The Montreal Canadiens coaching staff has often been criticized for not giving Kotkaniemi better line-mates and/or ice time; however, these aforementioned issues may be what is preventing Kotkaniemi from producing at a higher and more consistent rate. Regardless, one of Kotkaniemi’s biggest strengths has always been his playmaking, and if he manages to time his passes better, this could make up for his weaknesses.

A Fresh Start in Raleigh

Whether the Montreal Canadiens made the right choice by not matching the Carolina Hurricanes’ offer sheet is a question that likely cannot be answered for a few more years. In joining the Hurricanes, Kotkaniemi will be met with a new development plan under head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who has been known to get the best out of young players.

It will be here that fans and media will be able to see if the Montreal Canadiens made a mistake in their assessment and development program for the player.

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