I still remember the moment. I was at the 2018 NHL Draft Combine in Buffalo when a Montreal reporter came over to chat: he said the Canadiens were leaning heavily towards taking Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the first round that year. Were they going to trade down from No. 3, since Kotkaniemi was more top-10 than top-five at the time? Nope. This was wild to me: Sure, the Habs needed a center, but you never draft for position that high. And Kotkaniemi was still very much a project at the time, a player who had struggled at the summer's Hlinka-Gretzky tournament, but grew throughout the season and finished off strongly at the world under-18s. He was still figuring out his skating stride and wasn't even a true center, spending time on the left wing as well.
And then it happened. Montreal did indeed take Kotkaniemi third overall, then installed him in the Canadiens lineup right away, as an 18-year-old center. Kotkaniemi ended up taking the third-most faceoffs on the team, winning just 45.7 percent of his draws. His 34 points were pretty decent, but as a sophomore, he slumped. He won just 42 percent of his faceoffs, put up eight points in 36 games and was mercifully sent down to AHL Laval to get his game back on track.
Last year was slightly better, with Kotkaniemi posting his best faceoff percentage yet (47.9 percent), though 20 points in 56 games wasn't exactly world-beating. The playoffs were better, with Montreal's miracle run to the final aided by some solid 'KK' goal-scoring.
And we all know what happened next: Kotkaniemi signed an offer sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal decided not to match, allowing the youngster a fresh start in a new market, on a team with a brighter forecast for the 2021-22 season.
Tonight, Kotkaniemi and the Canes play Montreal for the first time, but 'KK' will be on the left wing. Carolina is flush down the middle with Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Vince Trocheck and new addition Derek Stepan, but Kotkaniemi always seemed to be better suited on the left wing anyways: He's not a line-driver, he's a triggerman.
Not only that, but two games into his fourth NHL season, Kotkaniemi is still one of the youngest players in the league – there are only 34 skaters born after him, some of whom are just playing their first-ever pro games.
Which is a long way of saying that I'm glad Carolina is doing right by Kotkaniemi because he's an easy kid to root for. Starting with his first NHL media scrums, he was always cheerful and enthusiastic. I've been criticizing the Habs for their treatment of his development pretty much from Day 1, but it was never because I wanted Kotkaniemi to fail – it was quite the opposite, in fact. The best thing the Canadiens ever did for him was send him to Laval and even then, it was months later than it should have been.
You can't change the past, but there is certainly an alternate universe in which Montreal drafts Kotkaniemi, lets him play two more seasons in Finland with Assat Pori (where his dad was coaching) and then starts him on the wing, with the knowledge that Nick Suzuki was ready to become that scoring line center they desperately needed to go along with shutdown ace Phillip Danault.
In that scenario, Kotkaniemi arrives in Montreal much more prepared for the rigors of NHL hockey and has an extra two years of strength and conditioning under his belt. As a left winger, he also has less responsibility on the defensive side of the puck and can concentrate on using his talents to produce offense.
Unfortunately, Kotkaniemi instead had to take the hard road. But hopefully now he gets that reset in Carolina, where he can take his game to the next level and do so on the left wing, while Aho plays his excellent two-way game down the middle.
If Kotkaniemi succeeds, then the offer sheet will look like a stroke of genius by the Canes. And it will be a harsh lesson in development for the Canadiens.