Montreal Canadiens: Claude Julien Continues To Sing Praises of Jesperi Kotkaniemi at Camp

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 returned to training camp two days ago and their coach really likes what he has seen from his Finnish sophomore.

The Montreal Canadiens reassembled for training camp on Monday, gearing up for the league’s first ever play-in series. They will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Best-of-5 format with the winner advancing to Stanley Cup Playoffs and the loser being entered into a lottery for the first overall pick.

The last time the Habs won the lottery was in 2018. That year, they moved up from fourth overall to third and selected a tall, slender centre out of Finland. Jesperi Kotkaniemi joined the team for their next training camp with the expectation that he would return to his native country for another year or two of development before he was ready for NHL duties.

The team’s newest recruit proved during an excellent training camp that he was ready to take that step immediately. He played well during a rookie season that saw him score 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games. He faded down the stretch of the longest season of his career to that point, but showed he had very high potential.

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This season didn’t go quite as planned for the Pori native either. With fans expecting his career trajectory to be linear, reaching 15 goals and 40 points, if not even more, was on the minds of many when he showed up for training camp 2019. Unfortunately, he would have just six goals and eight points in 36 NHL games before the Canadiens demoted him to the Laval Rocket.

About a month later the AHL and NHL would pause their seasons, with the AHL eventually deciding to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign. Slumps, demotions and your league cancelling its seasons aren’t the ingredients of a fantastic year, but Kotkaniemi still has a chance to redeem himself, and his head coach has his back.

Kotkaniemi made the most of his demotion, finding his offensive groove and scoring 13 points in 13 games. He was then injured on a hit along the boards in front of his opponent’s bench, and wouldn’t play again before hockey went on hiatus. An injured spleen required plenty of time off to recover, but he looks ready to go now, according to Claude Julien.

While Kotkaniemi made the most of his time in the AHL, it appears he spent his time wisely during the global pandemic as well. He recuperated from his spleen injury and continued to build muscle and improve his strength.

Julien mentioned again yesterday that the 20 year old Finnish centre looks way faster than he did at the start of the season.

Kotkaniemi required knee surgery at the end of the 2018-19 season, which caused him to miss out on most of his offseason training. It explains why he was off to a tough start to this season and couldn’t find any confidence with the Habs. It is difficult for a young player to take a step forward when he just had his knee put back together.

With more than four months off, Kotkaniemi used that time to first recover from his spleen injury and then make up for lost time in building up his strength. While his vision, hockey sense, ability to pass the puck and pinpoint accuracy with shot are not in question, Kotkaniemi’s ability to stand up to the physical grind of an NHL season was never a guarantee. He is tall, but he was a slender kid when the Habs made him the third overall pick.

With some time to build on that frame, and improve his strength, balance and speed, Kotkaniemi is going to be a much more dangerous player in August than he was in January. He looked like he was heading in the right direction when he was in Laval in February, and according to Julien, he looks even better today.

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Looking at his stat line will suggest a major sophomore slump. However, all the crazy circumstances around the world have left Kotkaniemi with a second chance to have a great second season.