Jesperi Kotkaniemi smiles a lot.
And, says occasional linemate Andrew Shaw, Kotkaniemi has good reason to smile. “He’s living the dream,” Shaw said. “Two or three years ago, did he think he’d be playing in the NHL as an 18-year-old? He’s still a kid, and he’s soaking it all in, especially around the holidays. He still believes in Santa Claus.”
It was Shaw who provided the Finnish rookie with a nickname. While coach Claude Julien got around the difficulties of pronouncing the teenager’s five-syllable surname (kaht-kan-ee-ehm-ee) by referring to him as ‘K-K,’ Shaw expanded on it and dubbed him ‘Kit-Kat.’
There are a lot of jokes in the Canadiens’ dressing room about Kotkaniemi’s age – he doesn’t turn 19 until July 6. But, as he has grown more comfortable with his surroundings, Kotkaniemi has shown an ability to be part of the fun. After one practice in late November, he was unable to reach his stall because there was an overflow scrum grilling Brendan Gallagher. Kotkaniemi grabbed a tape recorder from a reporter, thrust his arm into the melee and started asking Gallagher questions. “He’s always doing something silly,” Gallagher said. “Sometimes, he says something dumb, and it’s because of the language thing. But when he gets on the ice, he’s a smart player.”
Kotkaniemi’s hockey sense is one of the reasons he has endeared himself to his teammates and fans. “He sees the ice well and he makes plays you don’t expect him to make,” Julien said. “He makes mistakes just like everyone else, but what we like about him is that when he loses the puck, he works hard to get it back.”
One of the first things you notice about Kotkaniemi is that he’s reed thin. He carries 185 pounds on a 6-foot-3 frame, and there were those who wondered whether he could survive in the NHL.
Their fears were unfounded. Kotkaniemi has proven he can take a hit, and he showed he could deliver one, too, when he came to the defense of Carey Price in an overtime loss against Ottawa on Oct. 20. Colin White ran into Price while looking for a rebound, and Kotkaniemi shoved White into the end boards. “I did the right thing,” Kotkaniemi said. “You can’t do that to our goalie.”
For standing up for his teammate, Kotkaniemi received a pat on the back from Shaw. “I respect it,” Shaw said. “I love it.”
Only four players from the 2018 class went directly from the draft to full-time NHL duty. Kotkaniemi is the youngest member of that group, and he also arrived at Montreal’s training camp as a long shot to stick around.
The Canadiens stepped out of their comfort zone when they drafted Kotkaniemi third overall. The team’s philosophy has been to draft the best player available, but Montreal passed on wingers Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina and defensemen Quinn Hughes and Evan Bouchard.
Most scouts saw Kotkaniemi going in the middle of the first round, but the Canadiens, who have been weak up the middle, focused in on Kotkaniemi even though he played most of last season on the wing in the Liiga, the top professional league in Finland.
Marc Bergevin said Kotkaniemi would get a long look at training camp, but the Habs GM conceded the youngster would likely need another season in Finland to continue his development.
That certainly seemed to be the case after Kotkaniemi looked out of place when he took the ice for the annual pre-season rookie tournament in Laval, Que. He had difficulty figuring out the angles on the smaller North American ice surface. He was losing faceoffs as well as battles along the boards. “He looked lost, but he got better every game,” Julien said. “He’s a quick learner.”
Kotkaniemi was in the lineup on opening night, and Julien needed only six or seven games to decide he was NHL-ready. By December, Kotkaniemi was playing on the Habs’ first power-play unit.
Back in Finland, his father, Mikael, had mixed feelings about his son’s success. He was proud his son was enjoying success against the best players in the world, but Mikael was also the coach of Assat Pori in the Liiga, and he had lost the services of one of his best players.
Mikael followed his son’s progress on TV whenever it was possible, but he was sleeping the night of Nov. 1 when Jesperi scored his first two NHL goals in a win over Washington. Mikael did see the highlights the next morning and had a good laugh when he saw his son wearing the fur-trimmed Game of Thrones cape that captain Shea Weber bought for presentation to the team’s player of the game.
Assat fired Mikael Kotkaniemi after the team got off to a horrendous start, but there was a silver lining. He was free to travel to North America to see his son perform in person. – Pat Hickey
EASTERN CONFERENCE ROOKIE WATCH
BOSTON BRUINS: After an impressive debut that included five goals and nine points in 12 games last season, Ryan Donato found things more difficult in the NHL this time around. The puck skills are there, however, and he could earn a top-six role in time, especially if his skating keeps improving.
BUFFALO SABRES: Linus Ullmark has been the league’s best rookie goalie in his backup role. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder is 25 and had bounced between the NHL and AHL since arriving from Sweden in 2015. He’s worked out the kinks and is a full-time NHLer. He has the potential to be a No. 1.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: Andrei Svechnikov is Carolina’s rookie gem, but the versatile Warren Foegele is another solid young prospect who got into some games last year as well. Foegele’s combination of size and talent makes him a good weapon, though points have been scarce for the left winger so far.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Lanky defenseman Gabriel Carlsson is the only rookie to play a game for the Blue Jackets this year, but he’s spent most of the season in the AHL with Cleveland. Carlsson’s reach and size (6-foot-5, 190 pounds) are assets, but he needs to work on his gaps and decision-making.
DETROIT RED WINGS: The Red Wings prefer a patient approach with prospects, but the offensively inclined Dennis Cholowski simply forced them to keep him on the big team this year. Cholowski found himself among the top rookie scorers in a strong blueline class midway through the season.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: Injuries opened the door for 6-foot-2, 210-pound Juho Lammikko to fill the role of fourth-line center. Lammikko has never been a huge offensive producer, which has some questioning his upside. He did not disappoint his detractors, failing to score in his first 36 NHL games.
MONTREAL CANADIENS: Noah Juulsen, the Habs’ 2015 first-rounder, projects as a solid top-four defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the ice as well as on the power play, but he was slowed by injuries this season, including missing nine games with a facial fracture, and dispatched to the minors.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: The Devils have disappointed, but at least Mackenzie Blackwood, who got off to a great start with three wins and two shutouts in his first four appearances, gives them a future option in goal. Keith Kinkaid is a pending UFA and Cory Schneider’s future is cloudy.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS: Possession-driving defenseman Devon Toews has been moving up the prospect list since being drafted in the fourth round in 2014. Toews, who led all AHL rookies in assists in 2016-17, is one of several newbies getting a look, including 2014 No. 5 overall pick Michael Dal Colle.
NEW YORK RANGERS: He beat out Lias Andersson for a roster spot in training camp, so Brett Howden definitely earned his way onto the Rangers. The two-way center has been a solid offensive contributor for the rebuilding squad and will take on even more responsibility as New York sheds veterans.
OTTAWA SENATORS: If Matt Duchene gets dealt at the trade deadline or leaves as a UFA in the summer, it would not be a stretch to see Colin White move into the No. 1 center spot. The 2015 first-rounder has terrific instincts at both ends of the ice and is particularly responsible defensively.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The Flyers have done a nice job of drafting in recent years, and Oskar Lindblom is a good example of a late-round gem. The fifth-rounder from 2014 has taken a steady development path from Sweden, and the big and well-rounded left winger has found full-time NHL duty.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: A late-bloomer who found his game back in Finland under coach and former NHLer Sami Kapanen, Juuso Riikola has been a pleasant find for the Penguins, whose prospects cupboard is bare. Though not flashy, the 25-year-old defenseman is a slick skater who can handle the puck.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Through the first half, no player on the Lightning had more overtime points than the 1-2-3 totals of two-way center Anthony Cirelli. The fact Cirelli is so heavily counted upon during such a crucial time of the game as a rookie is a testament to his ability to produce under pressure.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: After he was named MVP of the 2018 AHL playoffs, expectations were high for Andreas Johnsson. He started slow but the hardworking speedster moved his way up the lineup, earning a spot on the left side of the Leafs’ second line with Auston Matthews and William Nylander.
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Jonas Siegenthaler has a sturdy build for an NHL defenseman, and while he’s not flashy, he can move pretty well on the back end. The Swiss national is seeing his first games with the Capitals after coming over to play for AHL Hershey last season.