Kotkaniemi Another Example of Canadiens Rushing Prospects
Unless you live under a rock, then you probably know (as a Canadiens fan) that this past weekend we lost developing young star Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Carolina Hurricanes. It was sad to see the 20-year-old center go, mainly because he hadn’t even hit his stride yet in the NHL.
Kotkaniemi’s 2020-21 regular season was, to put it lightly, underwhelming, as the 2018 third overall pick managed only five goals and 20 points on the season. After being a healthy scratch a handful of times towards the end of the season, and for the beginning of the playoffs, he was subbed in during the mid-way point of the series against the Maple Leafs.
In that series he thrived, scoring a huge overtime goal in game six, and propelling us with the momentum to take down our cross-province rivals. It seems that moments like this would be the everlasting definition of Kotkaniemi’s tenure with the Canadiens; brilliance in inconsistent flashes.
How it Started
As we can all remember, the Canadiens held the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. In some ways, it seemed that the general consensus in Montreal was that management was trying to right their wrongs of the past, mainly because of a past third overall pick that never panned out (Alex Galchenyuk).
The city was abuzz with who the Canadiens might select. I vividly remember one Habs fan buying a jersey with Filip Zadina‘s name on the back, even though the draft hadn’t even started yet. Other’s figured we would go after gritty American forward Brady Tkachuk. Alas, none of these picks occurred, and instead, we selected a lanky Finnish center that management regarded as our future number one center.
When Kotkaniemi was first drafted, Marc Bergevin would use the words “patience” and “long-term future” a lot to describe the plan for the young Finn. It seems the Canadiens GM was a bit trigger happy, and apparently, Kotkaniemi did enough in training camp, so Bergevin qualified an entry-level contract to the youngster straight out of training camp.
It was all going so fast for the rookie, who managed to produce a pretty decent season, posting 34 points in 79 games, and was even mentioned at one point for Rookie of the Year honors. Sadly, he wouldn’t win, but just the mere fact of him being mentioned proved that there was something special about the then-18-year-old.
Heading into his second season, fans were ready for “Kotka” to build off his impressive debut campaign, but it seems that he was hit with the “sophomore season curse”.
With the Canadiens faithful getting a taste of his rookie season, the pressure was on the 19-year-old Finnish native to produce an even better season his second time out. Even though it seemed he was slated to build off the momentum from the prior season, it wouldn’t work out that way at all.
Kotkaniemi would stumble out of the gate during the season, often looking like a shell of his first-season form. His skating drawbacks were being heavily exposed, and it looked at times like he was always one step behind the play that was culminating in front of him. Overall, it looked as if he was thinking way too much out there, and it showed.
He would only play in 36 regular-season games that year before management decided they had seen enough and sent him down to the Canadiens minor-league affiliate, the Laval Rocket. There, it was said, that Kotkaniemi would work on his conditioning and his confidence. It seemed that AHL send-down was exactly what the doctor had ordered because he would thrive in the “A”, posting 13 points in 13 games.
Not too long after, the Covid-19 pandemic would hit the entire world, forcibly shutting down everything. The youngster was finally finding his footing, and now it had been taken away from him. But the shut-down would prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kotkaniemi, who used the time to work on his mental strength, as well as his physical strength.
That is why when the NHL playoffs started up again in the “bubble, ” Kotkaniemi looked like an entirely new player. He looked bigger, faster, stronger; everything we Canadiens fans expected from our third overall pick. Those playoffs he was masterful, scoring huge momentum-shifting goals and playing with an intensity and fire we hadn’t seen out of a young center in a while.
It finally seemed that he had found his place with the club and that his third season would be his best yet.
Although fans believed he would build off his 2020 playoffs, that wouldn’t be the case, as Kotkaniemi would falter once again during the regular season, producing a lowly 20 points in 56 games. And much like the season before, it wouldn’t be until the playoffs that we would see the youngster dazzle once again.
During the Canadiens, 2020-21 Stanley Cup run the Finland native put up eight points in 19 games, and once again delivered momentum-shifting goals and plays that would propel our Stanley Cup run. It seemed he would find his footing when it came time to play for something (the Stanley Cup) and when there was some pressure in the game.
This is something you like to see out of a young, 21-year-old who is your third overall pick.
The Offer Sheet
A couple of seasons ago Marc Bergevin had sent out an offer sheet for then-restricted free agent Sebastian Aho. The move was largely seen as a gut punch by Bergevin to the Hurricanes, and it lingered on in the brains of hockey fans for the next couple of years. That is why it came as no surprise when a week and a half ago Hurricanes GM Don Waddell sent out his own offer sheet; this time, for Kotkaniemi.
The Hurricanes offered the 21-year-old 6.1 million dollars, on a one-year deal. The offer was seen as ludicrous considering that Kotkaniemi was (A) Only 21 years old, and (B) hadn’t cemented himself as a decent NHL’er. Still, the Hurricanes offered the contract, hoping the Canadiens would match and enter cap-space hell.
Well, it seems their plan backfired, as Bergevin elected not to match, which saw Kotkaniemi leave for greener pastures.
My final thoughts on Kotkaniemi’s tenure with the Canadiens is this; he was a young player who oozed potential, but once again, the Canadiens player development managed to fuck up another promising prospect. Just like we did with Galchenyuk, and just like we did with a slew of our other first-round picks (Louis Leblanc, Noah Juulsen, Nikita Scherbak, Nathan Beaulieu).
I don’t know why the Canadiens haven’t recognized this pattern, but for god’s sake, if we want to build a dynasty, let alone win a Stanley Cup, soon, this has to be put to a stop. We cannot keep losing promising prospects because of poor management skills.
As for Kotkaniemi, I wish him all the best in Carolina, and I hope he turns into the hockey player we all know he can be.
Onnea Carolinaan Jesperi!
Dropping the Mike on ya!!