Habs Select… Jesperi Kotkaniemi


The NHL Draft is not a perfect science. What many fans, and sometimes even media members tend to forget when evaluating prospects is that teams don’t look at it the way they do. The easiest part of the job is to compare those young men TODAY, where they are at this moment. What true experts do, you know the ones who actually go watch them play live, the ones who conduct the in-depth interviews, the ones who run the psychological tests, is to try to the best of their abilities to evaluate those prospects’ ceiling. When will they stop progressing in their development? And when looking at 17-18 year-olds, it’s no easy task and that’s why, folks, there are mistakes made every single year.

The Canadiens shocked some by selecting young Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi with their first pick, the third overall pick at the 2018 Draft. Yet, the young man, who played against men in Finland’s top pro league, finished the season with 10 goals, 29 points in 57 games with Assat. What does this relate to? Patrik Laine, potentially the best Finnish forward to come along since Teemu Selanne, had 17 goals and 33 points in 46 games in the same league before he was chosen second overall by the Winnipeg Jets in 2016.

Team: Assat (Finland)
Position: C
Shoots: Left
Age: 17
From: Pori, Finland
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 190 pounds

And Bob McKenzie’s take…

Yet, it seems like the scouts interviewed by TSN’s Bob McKenzie didn’t feel it was a stretch at all. While some fans were wanting Filip Zadina, professionals didn’t necessarily agree with them:

While Zadina is still very much a consensus top-five pick, relative to the other prospects, five of 10 scouts surveyed by TSN ranked him outside their top five. Five scouts had him in the top five, including three of them at No. 3, but he had three 6’s, a 7 and a 9 as well. That’s a far cry from the mid-season polling, when all of Zadina’s marks came in between 2 and 4.

The No. 5 spot on TSN’s final rankings goes to Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was No. 19 on the mid-season rankings and No. 10 on the draft lottery edition rankings. His strong performance at the World Under-18 Championships in April has vaulted him into the top five and provided this draft with something that it seemed to be missing all season long — a potential No. 1 centre.

If you’re on Twitter, you likely noticed that the surprise, even the outrage in some cases, was apparent with a few Montreal Canadiens’ fans. Yet leading into the Draft, scouting reports everywhere had Kotkaniemi as the top centre available and likely a Top-5 selection. Here are some more scouting reports on the Canadiens’ new prospect, provided by eliteprospects.com:

Matias Strozyk – 2017 – “A smart forward with a dangerous shot, Kotkaniemi possesses a high hockey IQ and determination with the skills to back it up. Positions himself well and often seems to be a step ahead of plays. Stickhandling and creativity allow him to split professional defences as a teenager. Decent size and frame, yet a very capable skater.”

Adam Kimelman – NHL.com – April 30: “Kotkaniemi played regular minutes in Liiga and won’t turn 18 until July 6. He’s used in the middle and on the wing, and kills penalties, which speaks to his high hockey IQ.”

Mike Morreale – NHL.com – April 30: “Kotkaniemi, who compares his style of play to Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, is a playmaker with strong hockey sense, a good compete level, a quick shot, and a nose for the net.”

Craig Button – TSN – April 28: “He plays the game in a similar fashion to Anze Kopitar and to Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews.”

Sam Cosentino – SportsNet – April 28: ” Has been on an upward trend dating back to the Ivan Hlinka tournament last August. Displays some heaviness in his game.”

Steve Kournianos – SportingNews/The Draft Analys – April 28: “Like his countryman Kupari, Kotkaniemi spent his draft year playing in Finland’s top circuit. Only difference is Kotkaniemi significantly out-produced him. He’s a mature playmaker with world-class vision, but his first-step quickness at this stage of his development is average.”

Cam Robinson – DobberProspects – April 26: “Great puck skills and finishing ability, but skating still a work in progress. Offers an awkward stride that doesn’t generate a ton of top-end power. That hasn’t stopped him from putting up more than respectable numbers Liiga though, albeit from the wing.”

The most in-depth scouting report that I was able to find was written by Derek Neumeier who had this to say about the Finnish prospect:

When looking at his potential NHL upside, there’s certainly a lot to like. The Pori native is an expert when it comes to puck protection, using his big frame, long reach and sharp mind to keep the puck safe and secure. When it comes to “sword-fighting” (winning stick battles for pucks), he’s incredibly successful. Additionally, he’s still a little scrawny, so once he adds more muscle he’s only going to get better in this regard. It doesn’t matter what zone he’s in, once Kotkaniemi gets the puck on his stick something positive is likely to happen. He keeps a good awareness of his surroundings and isn’t phased when pressure starts to close in on him, calmly carrying the puck forward into open ice or correctly turning around and skating it back to the defensemen behind him to get something else set up. His play without the puck isn’t particularly notable, but he knows where he needs to be, competes hard and uses a quick stick to disrupt opposing players.

His 29 points from 57 Liiga games don’t tell the whole story of his offensive abilities. Kotkaniemi is a high-end playmaker, feeding hard, tape-to-tape passes through tight spaces to reach his teammates. He’s not an overly flashy passer (although he sometimes shows off nifty stick language to deke out defenders first), but he’s consistent and efficient; the puck almost always gets to where it needs to go. His shot might be his best weapon, though, as there are times where it looks like it might be among the very best in this year’s draft class. He can tailor his wrist shot to go top corner or bore though a gap in a goalie’s form, and he can really unleash some powerful, accurate slap shots and one-timers if he’s given too much time and space.

Canadiens’ GM Marc Bergevin had this to say about the possibility of Kotkaniemi’s chances of playing in Montreal next season:

“He’s coming to Montreal next week for our Development Camp. We’ll look at him closely and we’ll go from there,” indicated Bergevin. “We’ll do what’s best for him in the long run, but we also have to look at the big picture and his future.”

Some fans were concerned with the fact that Jesperi played the wing last season but to those, rest assured: Kotkaniemi is a centre and will be playing centre in the NHL. He was playing against men and his teenager’s frame hasn’t filled-in yet, so he’s not quite heavy enough yet to play that position against full grown men. But when he played with kids his age internationally, he was dominant… at centre.

Kotkaniemi sees himself as similar in style to countryman Aleksander Barkov, the skilled and powerful 6-foot-3 centre the Florida Panthers drafted second in 2013.

“I think he’s a little bit of the same kind of player as me, but I try to be like him,” Kotkaniemi said. “He’s very calm when he’s on the ice and I like that.”

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