Kotkaniemi: He Who Laughs Last, Laughs Best

We’ve talked about it many times,. Fans being fans, they are quick at judging the development of a young prospect and often want them in too big of roles too soon. Fortunately, they’re not the ones at the helm of NHL teams as many of the best talent is being developed over time. The Edmonton Oilers have made a living of putting great young players in too big of roles too early in their career, burning them off and wrecking their development. With the exception of a few exceptional talents, it usually takes on average three to five years to determine the quality and depth of a Draft. And in spite of some fans claiming otherwise, the 2018 Draft is no exception.

Coming into the draft, the consensus amongst everyone was that Brady Tkachuk was likely the most NHL-ready player available. So to judge that draft within a two to three year period would likely confirm that. And guess what? It does, and Andrei Svechnikov is giving him a run for his money. Who can forget Habs’ fans’ reactions when the Canadiens announced the selection of Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick? While many today will claim wanting Tkachuk at the time, most wanted QMJHL’s Filip Zadina. Either way, KK wasn’t their pick and they made sure to let everyone know about it.

Player-development is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Like in those races, the leader at the start is often not the winner at the end. The Canadiens did not expect Kotkaniemi to make a push and earn a spot in the NHL in his rookie season. They warned us that it could take a couple of years for the young center to come to North America. As we know, he defied the odds and earned his spot at training camp.

Development

The Habs have been often criticized for their poor drafting and player-development and Marc Bergevin recognized the issue. He hired Martin Lapointe and Patrice Brisebois to fly around North America to follow the team’s top prospects and offer them some tips. Brisebois was later replaced by Francis Bouillon. The Canadiens’ GM also fired Sylvain Lefebvre (finally) as the team’s farm team’s head coach and replaced him with a guy who excels in getting through to young guys in Joël Bouchard. There was a change in mentality at that point and that’s also when Bergevin started piling up the picks.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi

When Claude Julien inherited KK, they had a plan. They wanted to bring up the young man slowly and offer him sheltered minutes on the third line, surrounding him with some good defensive veterans to help teach him the ropes. He often placed him in the middle of fellow countrymen Arrturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia, facilitating dialog and chemistry. Kotkaniemi had a good rookie season but struggled in his sophomore season. To the point where he was sent to the AHL for a few weeks to work with Bouchard and his group. Boy did that lite a fire under the Tkachuk-loving group!

When the Canadiens did the NHL a favour in participating in the COVID-Cup playoffs as the 24th ranked team (for viewership), they shocked everyone by outplaying Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins. They also gave a very good run for their money to the Philadelphia Flyers in the next series. In those playoffs, young Nick Suzuki and Kotkaniemi were dominant. KK was stronger on his skates, had found his stride and scoring touch.

Ready for more

For most Habs’ fans, it had become obvious that Kotkaniemi was ready to take on more offensive responsibilities. But frustration was building up as Julien was providing him with very limited ice time and more often than not, wasn’t giving him wingers to succeed offensively. And this season, with the obvious struggles of Phillip Danault, the fans’ frustration grew even more seeing Julien’s reluctance to giving KK more responsibilities. It seems like Bergevin agreed when he decided to thank his head coach for his services and replaced him with assistant bench boss Dominique Ducharme, a younger, more modern and progressive style of coach.

So far, Ducharme has given KK about a minute more of ice time per game at even strength. Seeing that his young center is responding well, he placed him between the team’s two best goals’ scorer on time for the last game against the Winnipeg Jets. With Tyler Toffoli on his left and Josh Anderson on his right, Kotkaniemi didn’t take much time and got an assist on Anderson’s goal, providing the Canadiens with an early 1-0 lead. This line finished the night with four points and a plus -6 rating while spending most of the night in the offensive zone. Further, Kotkaniemi won 13 of the 15 faceoffs on the night.

If there are two players who will benefit greatly from the change of head coach, it will be Kotkaniemi and Jonathan Drouin, who was coached by Ducharme in his junior days. It is exciting for the young guys coming up as well, as the new Canadiens’ bench boss is from a newer generation of coaches who better understand today’s players’ needs and what makes them tick. And the Habs don’t lack quality prospects coming up in the next few years… Go Habs Go!

Centers ice time in 2020-2021 season (last updated March 8)

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