Jesperi Kotkaniemi's grin, which stretched from ear to ear, made the Canadiens youngster a favorite in Montreal last season. When, after a slow start to the season, he scored his first NHL goal last November, it was hard not to feel thrilled for the kid. He seemed to happy to have made his mark.
In the 12 months since that fateful fall day, however, the smile has faded.
Not only did Kotkaniemi fail to factor into the Calder Trophy conversation last season, finishing with 11 goals, 34 points and sitting a few games as a healthy scratch late in the season, the start to his 2019-20 hasn't proven to be much better. Through 13 games, Kotkaniemi has produced only two goals and three points, and his ice time average has fallen from 13:44 to 12:43, low-lighted by a nine-minute outing against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday evening. Missing seven games with a groin injury hasn't helped matters, and while it could be argued Kotkaniemi's struggles have been due in part to deployment and in part to missed time, the reality is he simply hasn't given coach Claude Julien much to think about.
Right now, that has been the challenge, too: finding the right place for Kotkaniemi in the Canadiens' lineup. Projected to be a future top-six skater, Kotkaniemi has thus far been mired in the bottom six and saddled with what could be considered fourth-line minutes. He's the round peg trying to fit into the square hole, and he's stuck behind top-line center Phillip Danault and Nick Suzuki, who has earned his right to time on the second line.
As rumors have swirled around a potential AHL demotion for Kotkaniemi, however, the young Finnish forward may have a chance to prove himself with Paul Byron (knee) and Jonathan Drouin (wrist) out indefinitely.
Of course, taking advantage of the situation might be easier said than done. Byron and Drouin are both wingers while Kotkaniemi has typically been a center. But there is some precedent for using the 19-year-old on the wing. Last season, he emerged from a healthy scratch to play wing alongside Byron and Nate Thompson. Kotkaniemi has played on the wing in his native Finland, as well, skating there due to an influx of veteran centers in Assat. He succeeded, too, playing well enough to finish third in team scoring as a Liiga rookie.
The difficulty in simply moving Kotkaniemi to the wing, however, goes beyond his level of comfortability. Tantalizing as a combination of Kotkaniemi alongside Max Domi and Nick Suzuki might be, it would mean a move down the lineup for Joel Armia, who is experiencing something of a breakout season on the second line with six goals and 10 points in 18 games. Taking Armia off the second line likewise isn't all that appealing given it leaves a vacancy at third-line center. At that point, finding a place for Kotkaniemi up the lineup seems to create as many problems as it may solve, even if it is something worth exploring in the short-term.
So, maybe the answer, instead of dragging this on, is indeed to send him to the AHL if he shows no signs of improvement in the near future. There's no shame in sending him down and giving him time to work out the kinks in his game. A demotion did wonders for defenseman Victor Mete, who came back a new player from a seven-game stint in with the Laval Rocket last December and has since become a consistent top-four option in Montreal. After slipping down the depth chart mid-season, Mete has found his fit alongside Jeff Petry, and maybe a trip to the AHL could provide Kotkaniemi with a similar jolt.
It's easy for a young player to lose his confidence when things go south, and it might just take a few solid weeks in the NHL for Kotkaniemi to turn things around. But sending him down would not be an admission of defeat. Rather, it would present him with an opportunity to improve at a time when his situation with the big club simply isn't working out right now.
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