Montreal Canadiens: Jesperi Kotkaniemi Sent Second Shot at Sophomore Success

MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 09: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, QC - JANUARY 09: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

The Montreal Canadiens thought their season was finished, but they will return to action next week.

The Montreal Canadiens 2019-20 season was a bit of a roller coaster ride. They started the year well, keeping up with the top teams in the league through the first six weeks of the schedule. Then, they lost eight in a row. They climbed back into the playoff race before once again going on an eight game skid.

A decent stretch in late January and early February gave them one last gasp at possibly catching the Toronto Maple Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division. However, after beating the Maple Leafs on February 8th to pull within four points of a playoff spot, the Canadiens would lose their next five in a row.

While most Habs were on a wild roller coaster most of the season, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was just riding the teacups.

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The third overall pick in 2018 was a tall, slender kid when the Canadiens picked him. Just shy of his 18th birthday when his name was called at the NHL Draft, the Finnish centre was one of the youngest players in the draft. He played in Finland’s top league as a 17 year old and scored ten goals and 29 points in 57 games. Pretty impressive for such a young kid.

The 6’2″ centre surprised many when he showed up to training camp in Montreal looking ready for NHL action. He played so well throughout his first NHL training camp and exhibition games that he cracked the opening night lineup for the Canadiens.

Kotkaniemi would play 79 games in his rookie season and turn in a solid 11 goals and 34 points. Those numbers are more impressive when you consider he was the youngest player in the league playing a third and sometimes fourth line role with some secondary power play time.

So, it was hoped that he would improve on those totals heading into his sophomore season. Unfortunately, the old sophomore jinx reared its ugly head and we didn’t see Kotkaniemi match his rookie totals

In 36 games with the Habs this season, Kotkaniemi scored six goals and two assists for eight points. He was eventually sent down to the Laval Rocket and played well, scoring 13 points in 13 games, but his season ended early due to injury. He took an awkward hit along the boards in front of the bench and was diagnosed with a spleen injury. It was all but certain that his 2019-20 season was over.

Just as he was getting his confidence back at the AHL level, it looked like Kotkaniemi wouldn’t play another game this season. Then, of course, a global pandemic hit and completely tossed the entire hockey calendar into mad chaos. Now, we have teams skating and getting ready for a July training camp and a play-in series to determine playoff matchups that should start August 1.

While this is far from ideal for anyone in the world, it does give the Habs youngest player a chance to redeem himself.

It was announced last week that Kotkaniemi was full recovered from his injury and was training in Finland. He has since returned to Montreal and is gearing up to join the rest of the team at training camp one week from today.

Producing at a point per game level in the AHL, albeit for just one month, should serve to boost Kotkaniemi’s confidence when he does return to the Habs lineup. We though that would be at training camp in September, but it will be any day now when he joins his teammates for informal skates at the Habs training facility in Brossard.

At the time of draft it was thought he would stay in Finland for another season at least, if not two more, to fill out his slender frame. Instead, he overachieved in his first training camp and had a solid rookie season as an 18 year old.

Today is Kotkaniemi’s 20th birthday and he already had a 34 point NHL season and was a point per game player in the AHL. Had he stayed in Finland last season like we originally expected, expectations would have been a lot different heading into this season than they were. Maybe that added pressure was a bit too much for him in his 19 year old season.

No matter what way you slice it, his performance with the Canadiens was not great this season. But, with some extra seasoning in the AHL, a little time off to go home to Finland and work out and a second training camp to get ready, Kotkaniemi has a second chance at a successful sophomore season.

If he looks bigger, stronger and more balanced on the ice in August than he did in January, Habs fans will be feeling a lot better about the team’s decision to draft him third overall in 2018.

Next. Habs returning to play soon but is Max Domi?. dark

With Max Domi‘s status for the return to play very much up in the air, there could be plenty of ice time available for Kotkaniemi down the middle. If a 20 year old Kotkaniemi can look a little more confident with the puck and stronger in the corners, he can make everyone forgot about his struggles as a 19 year old earlier this season.