Montreal Canadiens: Jesperi Kotkaniemi Following Max Pacioretty’s Development Path

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 09: Look on Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) at warm-up before the Edmonton Oilers versus the Montreal Canadiens game on January 09, 2020, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 09: Look on Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) at warm-up before the Edmonton Oilers versus the Montreal Canadiens game on January 09, 2020, at Bell Centre in Montreal, QC (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens have decided to send Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Laval Rocket. He will try to learn how to be top six scorer in the AHL like Max Pacioretty did a decade ago.

The Montreal Canadiens drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. They targeted him because he is a big centre with offensive skills that led the Canadiens management team to believe he would be a future top six centre for them. The Habs had long needed a big, top centre and they thought they found their guy that day in June.

They might have. Kotkaniemi has shown some tremendous potential in his first year and a half in the National Hockey League. This season especially however, his point totals aren’t all that impressive and the 19 year old was sent down to the Laval Rocket of the AHL yesterday.

To this point in his career, Kotkaniemi has played 115 NHL games and scored 17 goals and 42 points. He had 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games as a rookie, but has just six goals and eight points in 36 games this season. Kotkaniemi is not the first person to suffer from the “sophomore jinx” but it did result in his demotion. The big Finnish centre will now try to find his confidence in the less bright lights of the AHL.

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Kotkaniemi was not playing a huge role on the Habs this season. He was sometimes getting the least amount of ice time of all 12 forwards, had been a healthy scratch and regularly had low scoring linemates like Nick Cousins or Jordan Weal on his line.

It wasn’t the best situation for success for Kotkaniemi. Of course, had he just played a lot better he would have earned more ice time and been given better linemates. If you don’t believe that is true just look at what Nick Suzuki has done this season. He was a fourth line right winger for a while but he played so well he has been given top six minutes as a centre lately.

Kotkaniemi had a hard time putting up points from a bottom six role this season. Instead of continuing to put him out there in a bottom six role without power play time, Kotkaniemi will now play a big role for the Laval Rocket.

Another first round pick of the Habs was in a similar situation nearly a decade ago. He said himself that he would rather play a first line role for the Hamilton Bulldogs than sit on the fourth line for the Habs and get benched every time he made a mistake.

That player was Max Pacioretty. He was taken in the first round of the 2007 NHL Draft and spent his first two pro seasons bouncing back and forth between the AHL and NHL. He turned some heads when he made the comment about preferring to play a big role for the Bulldogs, rather than have Jacques Martin constantly benching him, but he was right. Young players, especially offensive-minded young players need to make plays and control the puck in order to develop.

Pacioretty knew he needed to play somewhere where he would be able to contribute offensively if he was going to get better. He needed to stay in the minors for a longer stretch of games so he could gain confidence and figure out what worked against professional defensemen and goaltenders.

In his first two pro seasons, when he was 19 and 20 years old after playing one season of NCAA hockey following his draft, Pacioretty had just six goals and 25 points in 86 total games with the Habs. He was sent down to the AHL early in his third training camp and he scored 17 goals and 32 points in 27 AHL games to begin the year. He was ready for a top six role in the NHL.

The Rocket have 30 games left this season and if Kotkaniemi remains on their roster for the remainder of the season, he will be hoping to have a similar impact that Pacioretty did in his last AHL stint.

This would allow Kotkaniemi to gain confidence in his offensive game and really set him up for success with the Canadiens next season. After being called up for good by the Habs in the 2010-11 season, Pacioretty scored 14 goals and 24 points in 37 games. His first full season saw him score 33 goals and 65 points in 79 games.

I don’t know that we will see 30 goals and 65 points from Kotkaniemi next season. However, a successful stretch of games with the Rocket this season would allow him to be more of a threat offensively for the Canadiens in the future.

Kotkaniemi turned 19 in July and was the fifth youngest player that was a regular NHL player this season. There is no shame in a teenager needing a stint in the American Hockey League to reach his true offensive potential, no matter how many NHL games he already has under his belt.

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When Pacioretty was this age, he had three goals and 11 points in 34 games for the Habs. He spent the next decade being the team’s best goal scorer and top offensive threat. Kotkaniemi will now try to follow in those footsteps and return to the Canadiens when he is ready to be the top six centre we all predicted the day he was drafted.