Pori Ässät team in the Finnish Liiga promoted today’s preseason game as “Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s final game in Pori for now”. They even arranged a Kotkaniemi fan meeting after the game where he signed autographs for his fans. In the actual game, Kotkaniemi was used as the number one center for his team. Ässät scored two goals, and Kotkaniemi finished the game with two assists. Not bad. He also made some nice plays to create some chances that didn’t end up on the score sheet. It’s just a preseason game but he’s looking more and more like the number one center the Canadiens expected him to become when they drafted him third overall in June.
But why did they promote the game like that? Well, it’s because it was Kotkaniemi’s final game before he travels to Montreal and joins the training camp of the Canadiens. Because he has signed an NHL contract, it’s up to the team to decide where he plays this season. Finland is one option but definitely not the only one. Obviously teams usually discuss things over with their players but at the end of the day, the decision will be made by the Canadiens.
Kotkaniemi will try to make the jump to the NHL straight from the draft. He has the size (6-2.25, 181), pro experience and two-way game you need to crack the NHL roster as an 18-year-old. And the Canadiens have a desperate need for someone who can play center for them. It wouldn’t be shocking if Kotkaniemi cracked the Canadiens’ roster right away. But is he ready to be an impact player at the NHL level? I don’t think so. The good news is that the Canadiens have ample time to figure it out – they can give him big minutes during the preseason, and they can also give him nine regular season games before burning the first year of his entry level contract. At that point, they should know if he’s ready or not.
If Kotkaniemi isn’t ready to be an impact player at the NHL level, keeping him around as a depth option isn’t helping anyone. The Canadiens are not Cup contenders by any means, so Kotkaniemi’s development should be number one priority when making the decision of where he plays. Yes, he was a full-time player in Liiga already last season but that was as a middle-six winger. This season, he can be a top-six center for Ässät which would be tremendous for his development. He would also be a major part of Team Finland at the World Juniors. Because the Liiga season is pretty short and travels are not a concern, he’d have the time he needs to work on his skating and adding some muscle to his thin frame. He just turned 18 a month ago. He’s very young.
Because he was drafted out of Europe, the AHL is also one option. But I don’t like it as a development league for teenagers. The AHL is all about playing and travelling. There isn’t much time to do anything else there. AHL teams are so focused on winning at any cost which can sometimes hurt the progress of a young individual. They may not even have the type of coaches who can properly help their youngsters. Players don’t get much guidance there, they’re just expected to play and win – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but teenagers usually require some guidance and time to focus on improving certain parts of their game. Some teenagers are mature enough to succeed in the AHL but we’ve also seen some highly-regarded prospects whose development is completely stalled there.
Poehling, Olofsson and Ikonen
Speaking of the Canadiens and their struggle to find competent centers, their future in that regard is starting to look pretty good. Ryan Poehling had a very good season at college after the Canadiens drafted him 25th overall in 2017. Poehling is a two-way center with good size (6-2, 183), and he’s probably ready to jump to the NHL after his college season is over. Everything is looking good for him to become a very good number two center for the Canadiens. It’s unlikely he’d become a huge offensive force but he can do enough to play that type of role without hurting the production of his wingers.
Behind Kotkaniemi and Poehling, the Canadiens also have Jacob Olofsson and Joni Ikonen who both look like they could become very good third-line centers. Ikonen was drafted 58th overall in 2017, and he spent last season as the third-line center for KalPa in the Finnish Liiga. This season, I’m expecting him to earn a bigger role and contribute more offensively. He showed some flashes last season but focused on playing a reliable two-way game which is also important for his future in the NHL. It was a successful year for his development but now he needs to take that next step.
Olofsson was drafted 56th overall this summer after a strong season for Timrå in the Allsvenskan, the second-highest level in Sweden. If both he and Ikonen continue developing as planned, one of them would have to shift to wing because there’s no point in using either of them on the fourth line. Olofsson has the size (6-2, 192) and two-way game you want from a third-line center. Ikonen isn’t bad defensively either, though, but with his smaller frame (5-11, 172) and a great release, he could be the one who gets moved to wing if one of them has to. Because of this, I would also take Ikonen ahead of Olofsson in fantasy hockey drafts – he could be a middle-six winger who can put up good numbers. Olofsson is a nice player but just seems destined for that third-line center role where he needs to focus on the defensive side of the game a bit more.
Poehling, Olofsson and Ikonen should all play at the World Juniors if they’re healthy. If Kotkaniemi is also available, Montreal fans may want to keep an eye on the tournament played in Vancouver and Victoria because it’s not often you see the entire future of your team’s center depth in one international tournament. Things may not look so great right now but the kids are coming, they just need some time to get there.
And that’s all for now. Feel free to add comments below. Follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.
Image courtesy of sportsnet.ca