It’s not official, and by all estimations it won’t be until the final cuts come down as the training camp and pre-season schedule comes to a merciful end, but all signs point toward Jesperi Kotkaniemi, selected third-overall by Montreal in June, earning a spot in the Canadiens’ lineup come opening night. Matter of fact, Canadiens coach Claude Julien said twice following Wednesday’s outing against the Toronto Maple Leafs that “it’s pretty hard not to see” Kotkaniemi making the roster.
The assumption among some, though, is that Kotkaniemi making the roster on opening night would come with the caveat that it’s a nine-game tryout, an audition for a full-season roster spot for the rookie. At nine games, the Canadiens could make the decision on Kotkaniemi without burning a year of his entry-level contract, and if Montreal felt he wasn’t ready at that point for the rigors of an NHL season, he could be shipped back to the Finnish League, where he’ll get the opportunity to prepare for life as a big-league center under the watchful eye of his father, who happens to be the coach at Assat, Kotkaniemi’s club back home.
But how, exactly, are the Canadiens supposed to send him back at any point this season if Kotkaniemi is performing at this level? He’s already forced Montreal’s hand when it comes to keeping him into the regular season — because, rest assured, if the Canadiens were at all on the fence, they aren’t now — and at this rate he seems like he should be sticking around long-term.
While true that the pre-season often needs to be taken with a tractor trailer-sized grain of salt, Kotkaniemi’s performances have been impressive and he’s been given ample opportunity to shine. The 18-year-old has seen more exhibition ice time than any other Canadiens forward and more overall ice time than all but Victor Mete, Mike Reilly and Jeff Petry. Kotkaniemi’s 5-on-5 ice time has been greater than any other player in Montreal this pre-season. And he’s produced at both ends of the ice in the minutes he’s been given.
All indications, in fact, would be that Kotkaniemi has what it takes to compete against the top-tier talent that the NHL provides. Through exhibition games against the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, Kotkaniemi hasn’t looked at all out of place. Against quality competition, he has held his own. Against those who are certain to begin the season in the minors, he’s had his moments where he looks every bit the NHL calibre pivot that the Canadiens drafted him to be.
Kotkaniemi certainly passes the eye test. Julien even praised Kotkaniemi’s play after Wednesday’s game by saying the puck appeared “glued” to his stick, and that’s in a game where he spent some ice time against Maple Leafs regulars such as Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown. The underlying numbers support Kotkaniemi’s performance, as well. His contributions in four games include one goal and three points, while he’s excelled at driving the play (60 percent Corsi for percentage), earned a heavy slant of the scoring chances (67.9 scoring chances for percentage) and his goals for percentage at five-a-side is flawless. Kotkaniemi has been on ice for five Canadiens goals for at 5-on-5 and not a single marker against.
That’s not to say there aren’t any areas of concern. Kotkaniemi has been heavily sheltered throughout the pre-season. Of the 39 faceoffs he’s taken at even strength through four games, only 10 of them have come in the defensive zone. That could be inflating his play-driving numbers ever-so-slightly. And, truth be told, Kotakniemi hasn’t really been all that great on the dot. There’s more to being a center than winning faceoffs, to be sure, but there’s obvious room for improvement when your pre-season faceoff win percentage is below 40 percent. Neither of those should be reason enough for Kotkaniemi to be sent packing if he can clearly help the Canadiens, though.
Some will assert that there’s more harm than good that can be done by rushing Kotkaniemi along, but no one is saying he needs to be thrust into a first-line role. Leave that to Max Domi or Jonathan Drouin. Even let Phillip Danault shoulder that responsibility. And if Kotkaniemi can come along at his own pace in the middle of the Montreal lineup, it could pay great dividends. Heck, he could even surprise. As talented and heralded as Nico Hischier was coming into his rookie campaign with the Devils, few pegged him as a first-line pivot in his first year, yet New Jersey’s top unit for the majority of the campaign. No one will bat an eye, though, if the Canadiens pattern Kotkaniemi’s play this coming season after that of Nolan Patrick. The Flyers allowed the 2017 second-overall selection to grow throughout the season, and he came on by the end of the campaign and is now projected to center the second line in Philadelphia this coming season.
This is all to say that while there’s sure to be endless debate about Kotkaniemi’s place in the lineup, his pre-season performance demonstrates his readiness, at the very least, for his nine-game trial. If he passes that test, the Canadiens shouldn’t hesitate to keep him around. The 39-game mark might be the real test, playing a 40th contest would allow Kotkaniemi to become an unrestricted free agent one season sooner. But if by mid-season he’s still showing he has what it takes to hang in the NHL, that’s absolutely where he should be.