It’s June 22, 2018. The Montreal Canadiens enter the NHL Entry Draft in Dallas, Texas with the third overall pick after a disastrous season. All signs pointed to the Habs picking Czech forward Filip Zadina with the third overall pick. However, the Canadiens had different plans in mind. There was a young Finnish centre who had been skyrocketing through the ranks who the Canadiens set their sights on. Not only because of the overall skill he possessed, but the team needed a big centre. His name, Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Fast forward to Oct. 3, 2018. Opening night, Habs vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kotkaniemi an 18-year-old earns a place on the Canadiens opening night roster and is set to be the first player born in the 2000s to play an NHL game. Making him the youngest player in the NHL. Kotkaniemi impresses in his debut registering an assist and logging 15:05 minutes of ice time in his first NHL game. He wins over the coaching staff with his maturity and 200-foot game and manages to put together quite the rookie season. Kotkaniemi finishes with 11 goals and 34 points in 72 games while playing mostly on the third line. Impressive numbers for an 18-year-old rookie.
Fast forward again to Feb. 1st, 2020. Jesperi Kotkaniemi sent down to the Canadiens AHL affiliate Laval Rocket.
… what? Why? How could the Canadiens possibly send down the future of the franchise when they are currently battling for their playoff lives? A lot of fans are furious and calling for people’s heads over the demotion. However, Kotkaniemi getting demoted is a blessing in disguise.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi Looking to Get Back on Track in Laval
Normally when a player gets demoted, it’s met with disappointment and even some anger. However, it was the exact opposite for Kotkaniemi. In a recent interview with The Athletic’s Arpon Basu, Kotkaniemi says he was excited about the demotion. The first thing that came to his mind was the fact he would get to play more than nine minutes per game.
This outlook is exactly what makes Kotkaniemi such a special player. The maturity he shows as a 19-year-old is outstanding. He does not look at this as a step back in his career. Kotkaniemi sees this as an opportunity for more playing time and to further develop his skills to make himself a better player in the long run. This is exactly what the AHL is meant to do.
He did just that. Despite only playing roughly 16 minutes of ice time, Kotkaniemi registered an assist in his first AHL game. Not bad for his first game. Kotkaniemi never had a chance to practice with his new teammates. So as he gets time to develop chemistry and adjust to his new team, his minutes will surely go up.
To warm-up for the game, Kotkaniemi hit the local outdoor rink close to his home. He and his dad went through some drills to get him ready, as Kotkaniemi had not skated since Thursday, Jan. 30th. Again, Kotkaniemi showing his maturity getting right to work to prep for the game.
The biggest thing with getting sent to the AHL is it gives the players the chance to develop and regain confidence. That’s exactly what needs to happen for Kotkaniemi. He got off to a quick start in the NHL this season scoring two goals in his first three games while centring a line of Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia. However, Kotkaniemi struggled after those first three games and was demoted to the fourth line wing against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 15th. Julien did put the line back together for the next game, however, it did not last long. Kotkaniemi just was not playing well and it forced Julien to make some lineup changes. Kotkaniemi went on to score on one point in the next 14 games while playing less than 14 minutes every night.
In the AHL, Kotkaniemi will be used in every situation. Penalty kill, power play, four-on-four, three-on-three. He will most likely play 20-plus minutes a night for the Rocket while centring the top line as he did in his debut. This will certainly help the 19-year-old regain his confidence and allow him to develop his 200-foot game, which is what he will need to do to become the top centre the Canadiens drafted him to be. Putting in some quality work with Joel Bouchard can only benefit the young centre.
Becoming More Consistent
Another big issue facing Kotkaniemi is consistency. It’s been that way through his young career. Twice this season, Kotkaniemi came out scoring only to go on a massive slump. Already mentioning the hot start followed by one point in 14 games, Kotkaniemi also had another stint once he returned from injury in Dec. where he scored in back to back games the followed that with one point in his next 12. This is partially what led to his demotion, among other things. Kotkaniemi needs to be more score with more consistency, playing in the AHL can help with that.
As I mentioned earlier, Bouchard intends to play him in all situations. This will give Kotkaniemi every opportunity to put up points an excel offensively. The NHL is not a development league, so Julien is not going to throw Kotkaniemi into the fire and give him these big minutes when he is making mistakes and clearly not playing well. However, Bouchard will do just that in the AHL. Kotkaniemi will have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them by being thrown back out there to redeem himself.
This added trust and playing time will help Jesperi Kotkaniemi become more confident in his playing abilities and in turn translate to him being a more consistent player moving forward.
Possibility of Experiencing Playoff Hockey
Although the Habs are not entirely out of the playoff picture, the chances of playoff hockey in Laval is more realistic than in Montreal. This is especially true now with the recent additions of Kotkaniemi and Cale Fleury to the team. If the Canadiens keep falling out of contention, the Rocket will receive another boost from Ryan Poehling as well. This experience for Kotkaniemi will certainly benefit him in the long run, IF, the Rocket do, in fact, make the playoffs. Getting the chance to be a part of a winning culture with future teammates like Poehling, Fleury and Cayden Primeau is something the youngster will certainly benefit from and can only be looked at as a positive looking towards the future.
Demotion Should Only be Seen as a Positive for Kotkaniemi
While it is easy to say this demotion hurts the Habs and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the facts are laid out right in front of us. This demotion is a blessing in disguise. Kotkaniemi clearly was not playing well enough to get into the Habs line up. If he is not going to play, it’s no good for his development to sit in the press box. Sending him to Laval to play top-line minutes as well as in all situations will only better the player in the long run.
The main thing for Kotkaniemi is that he has the right attitude going into a situation that he is not familiar with. Playing in the AHL for the first time and wanting to learn and develop his game to make him become a much more complete player in the NHL. He is proving that he is wanting to do just that by his actions immediately after the demotion. Hitting the outdoor rink and being generally excited to suit up for the Rocket is the exact mentality you want from the youngster. It’s that positivity that will help him succeed and help his development moving forward. It worked for Victor Mete after his seven-game demotion last season, it will surely work the same for Kotkaniemi.
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