You’re going along as a young man, trying to find your niche as a 19 year old in a country miles away from your hometown on the most historic and decorated hockey team in the world. You’re working with the coaches, other players and on your own, trying to get to the next level as soon as you possibly can. The pressure of being the third overall pick at the Draft weights on you, and playing in the Mecca of Hockey, in front of fans who aren’t always the most supportive of their own players, coaches and General Managers. But then something happens. An event changes everything and you find yourself at that next level…
Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s selection at the 2018 NHL Draft by the Canadiens shocked many, and even infuriated others and the inevitable comparisons to Brady Tkachuk – who is 10 months older – are a constant reminder of some of this disgruntled fan base. Notwithstanding the fact that the Senators don’t have the Habs’ depth and quality up front, allowing Tkachuk to play top-six minutes and playing five and a half more minutes per game than his younger counterpart, the young Sens plays three minutes a game on the powerplay to Kotkaniemi’s 1:42. Further, those “fans” know very little between playing centre in the NHL and the responsibilities that come with it, as opposed to skating up and down the wing. But I regress.
After a good rookie season where the one they nicknamed KK managed 11 goals and 34 points as the youngest player in the NHL, he added some much needed weight to his teenager’s body in the off-season, which seemed to slow him down, likely contributing to the infamous sophomore slump he seems to be going through this season.
This year, feeling bigger and stronger already, Kotkaniemi has doubled his number of hits per 60 minutes, going from 3.64 to 6.82. He is clearly stronger on his skates and he doesn’t spend half as much time on his knees as he did a year ago. And as of last night against the Philadelphia Flyers, the young Finnish centre has as many fights this season as Tkachuk.
We’re in Philadelphia, home of the Broad Street Bullies, a place where fans absolutely love fights in the NHL. It’s early in the third period when Flyers’ defenseman Robert Hagg hits rookie Ryan Poehling from behind. Seeing that the inconsistent (and incompetent) referees didn’t deem the play to be penalty-worthy, Kotkaniemi took matters into his own hands to avenge his linemate. Shockingly, he went straight at Hagg and BOTH players dropped the gloves. Hagg didn’t even have a chance to throw a punch, too busy trying to protect himself against a whaling Kotkaniemi who ended up losing his balance and fall to the ice at the end, at Hagg’s relief.
True to form, the incompetent referees gave an instigator penalty to the young Finnish player who had to spend the next 17 minutes in the penalty box, infuriating Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien, and rightfully so, proving once again the inefficiency of the two-referees system. The Habs killed the extra two-minutes awarded to Kotkaniemi and they left Philadelphia with a 4-1 win. In this win, one young man came out on top. In spite of Ilya Kovalchuk’s two goals, in spite of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar‘s three points’ performance, the players in the dressing room gave the sword of the game to… Kotkaniemi. A fight that could very well be the turning point in this young man’s career.