The day before he drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third-overall pick, Marc Bergevin said something eerie and unusual by GM standards. “What I’d like to do is make the team better right away, and if that’s there, I will,” he said, “But I also have to look to the long term for the good of the Montreal Canadiens – regardless if I’m here or not.”
The Canadiens recently revamped their public relations department with an eye to lifting the veil of secrecy that always seems to surround them and also to get Bergevin to be a little more forthcoming, but statements like that are akin to the president of the United States blurting out the nuclear codes. These are strange, and lean, times in Montreal, however. Bergevin and others are fighting for their jobs. Yet true to his word, Bergevin didn’t take the easy route and try for a quick fix at the draft. Tired of hearing how thin the Canadiens are down the middle, he and his staff went out and used seven of their 11 picks on centers, ranging in size from 6-foot-2 and 189 pounds to 5-foot-9 and 168.
None of them is more intriguing that Kotkaniemi, a player who flew from the lower end of the first round on projected draft lists right up to the top with a tour-de-force performance at the World Under-18 Championship. One scout remarked in THN’s Draft Preview that Kotkaniemi “was terrible” and “couldn’t skate” after seeing him at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament last summer. But Kotkaniemi worked hard to address that shortcoming and put up some good numbers (10 goals and 29 points in 57 games) playing with men on Assat Pori in the Finnish League.
Six years to the day before they took Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens had the same third- overall pick in the draft. With that 2012 selection, they took Alex Galchenyuk, a player who was drafted as a center but played his final year of junior as a right winger. In six years in the NHL, he never did find his true position. And that was one reason why he was traded in the days before the draft to the Arizona Coyotes for Max Domi.
In Finland, Kotkaniemi is playing left wing, yet he too is projected to be a center in the NHL. But here’s where Kotkaniemi has an advantage. His father, Mikael, is his coach in Assat, where Kotkaniemi’s under contract to play for the next two seasons, so a change in position to his natural spot at center would be advantageous for both Assat and the Habs and will likely happen this coming season. “I played (on the wing) last year because I was the youngest center on our team and we had many centers in there, so they put me on the wing,” Kotkaniemi said. “But I think that was good thing, too. It’s good if you can play many positions.
“If I want to play center, we speak that at the breakfast table.”
That one got a few good laughs. So did Bergevin when asked about Kotkaniemi’s potential. At 6-foot-2 and 181, there is room for Kotkaniemi to grow. “He’s not a big guy right now, but he’s got a frame where he can be a thick player,” Bergevin said. That one goes back to two drafts ago when the Canadiens took Mikhail Sergachev and Bergevin said in an interview in French that he likes his players “thick.” The only problem was the word for thick in French is epais, which colloquially means dumb as a sack of hammers.
There was little doubt, though, the Kotkaniemi pick was made with an eye to eventually filling a gaping hole in Montreal’s depth chart. The Canadiens were never in the John Tavares sweepstakes and, as they’ve learned the hard way, the middle of the ice is a difficult place to fill unless you do it yourself by drafting and developing good players. Bergevin thinks his organization is on the right track. “I feel really happy for the Montreal Canadiens moving forward,” he said. “With (2017 first-rounder Ryan) Poehling coming in, I think we’ll have a solid down-the-middle line for years to come. So the future at that position, which is a very important position, I think it’s bright.”
The pick wasn’t without its risk. In taking Kotkaniemi, the Habs passed on Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina, both of whom project as surefire NHL wingers. Zadina, in fact, was so upset he fell to sixth in the draft that he vowed he’d get his revenge on the Canadiens, as well as the Ottawa Senators, for passing on him, saying, “I will fill their net with the puck. Yeah, it’s just I want to prove them that they have done, like, bad decision.”
If Kotkaniemi develops into the first-line center the Canadiens project, nobody will be pointing back to the 2018 draft and saying the team blundered. Kotkaniemi describes himself as a playmaker who loves to find the passing lanes, “but I also have a good shot. I need to use it a little more.” He talked about how, being a bigger guy, he loves going into the corners and battling, then coming out with the puck. He might be able to get out of his contract with Assat Pori a year early, but all signs point toward him spending at least one more season in Finland before facing the pressures of the NHL. “I think I’m a cool guy,” Kotkaniemi said. “I don’t take pressures. Everywhere I go, it’s just hockey.”
For a market that hasn’t had a legitimate No. 1 center since Saku Koivu, it’s never just hockey in Montreal. Kotkaniemi will learn that, and it will be years before the hockey world can judge whether the Habs righted the ship by making a bold pick or continued to be mired in the muck by passing on the sure things.