Who said life was easy and that decisions were straightforward, that things were black or white? We’re all faced with though decisions, wondering if we made the right one. Whether it’s about the post-secondary school you are going to attend or the subject you’ll be taking, or the job offers, the woman or man in your life, it’s hard to know for sure what to do. Just yesterday, I bought a new (to me) truck and I had a hard time picking between two. I still don’t know if I made the right decision but at some point, one has to make that difficult decision. Hockey is no different for people in the business, for those who have to balance what’s good for a player, a team, in the short, medium or long term.
Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens are weeks away from having to make that difficult decision once again with a couple of their top prospects. As they decided to keep Alex Galchenyuk with the big club as an 18 year-old in his rookie season, they are facing the same dilemma with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. In the case of Suzuki, they have two choices: back to junior or stay in Montreal. Because of regulations between junior clubs, the AHL and the NHL, he cannot play for the Laval Rockets. If I had to bet money, I’d say that he will play one more year junior but your guess is as good as mine.
Kotkaniemi’s situation is slightly different in the sense that since he’s not coming from junior hockey, he can go to the AHL and be developed by newly hired coach Joël Bouchard. So for him, there are three choices: the NHL, the AHL or back to Ässät in the Liiga Finnish Elite League, where he played last season, cumulating 29 points in 57 games as an 18 year-old. And that’s where Bergevin and his management group have to be very careful as they cannot afford to let this one slip as did Galchenyuk.
The consensus is that Kotkaniemi is proving not only to Habs’ fans and management, but to the entire NHL that being picked third overall wasn’t a stretch. He is improving with every exhibition game he’s playing in, showcasing his great hockey IQ. He has the skills, the demeanour and frame to play in the NHL today. He just needs to add some meat on his teenage bones. Standing at 6-foot 2-inches, he only weighs 184 lbs and playing against the biggest, fastest and strongest players in the world, it’s a huge risk for injuries.
The AHL option
Kotkaniemi’s situation is not without reminding me of an Edmonton Oilers former first overall pick. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the talent to play in the NHL. He had the smarts, the speed, the hands and the height to play at that level. What he didn’t have quite yet is the weight… and he spent a few years on the injured list. Some around the NHL, particularly the Oilers, will argue that it slowed down his development. Had he had the option of playing in Europe against men, things could have been different for him. He was too strong for junior, not physically mature enough for the NHL.
Personally, I would strongly suggest that the AHL is not the place for the Canadiens’ top prospect. When the NHL, in their ‘wisdom’, decided to go to a two-referees system, they not only killed consistency by putting two different judgments on the ice, but they added incompetent people in places where they have no business being in. Worse, it created a ripple effect in every single league below. Guys who shouldn’t be in the AHL are now officiating in that league, at a level over their head, creating a dangerous situation for players down there.
Sending Kotkaniemi to play under Bouchard would be ideal as he would be at proximity to better monitor his ice time, his game situation and he could receive a call-up if or when need be. It would also throw him to the wolves, playing against men who have aspirations to make a name for themselves and showing the kid what North American hockey is all about. Opposing coaches would be targeting him in their game plan and you can bet that intimidation would be in their plan to get him out of his game… or out of the game. As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that the NHL is a better option than the AHL.
NHL or Ässät
On the other hand, the best option for the Canadiens’ young protege would be the Finish Elite League, playing under his father Mikael, who playing him on the wing last season, but who already said that he’s willing to put him at centre if that’s the Habs’ brass’ wish. Playing on the bigger ice surface, where he can continue working on his skating and puck skills, would be in my opinion not only the best option, but the only option if Bergevin and coach Claude Julien judge that he needs some maturing. In addition, the team would keep him one more year under their control as his professional contract would be differed.
In the meantime, we will enjoy watching this kid continue to strut his stuff, getting an entire fanbase excited about the prospect of having him centre one of the top lines, possible with Suzuki and other top centre prospect Ryan Poehling. Go Habs Go!