Montreal Canadiens: Three Players To Watch vs Toronto Maple Leafs

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 03: Brett Kulak #77 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 03: Brett Kulak #77 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /
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Montreal Canadiens
MONTREAL, QC – JANUARY 09: Jesperi Kotkaniemi #15 of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images) /

1. Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Jesperi Kotkaniemi impressed the Canadiens in his first training camp and put together a solid rookie season in 2018-19. He had 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games and scored those points from a third and sometimes fourth line role with little power play time to boost the offensive output.

His sophomore season was not a good follow up to a solid first showing. Kotkaniemi struggled to put up points at the NHL level and finished the Habs regular season playing 36 games and scoring just eight points. It was a big step back for the young Finnish centre.

Kotkaniemi was sent down to the AHL level where he quickly found his offensive confidence. He scored 13 points in 13 games with the Rocket before suffering a spleen injury. It was thought that would end his season, but with the postseason beginning in August, Kotkaniemi was able to rehab and return to the lineup.

He has been placed on a third line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. This is a pretty safe spot for the young centre, but also gives his ample opportunity to showcase his offensive skills. While those two wingers are two of the best defensive forwards on the team, Byron is one of the fastest skaters in the league and has proven to be a 20 goal scorer. Lehkonen has shown flashes of offensive prowess but hasn’t been able to reach his rookie total of 17 goals.

Kotkaniemi is going to have to be good to keep this spot in the lineup. Max Domi came to camp a week late after taking precautions due to the global pandemic. He has been placed between Dale Weise and Jordan Weal on the team’s fourth line, but has the skills to move up the lineup. If Domi does get pushed up the lineup, it would likely be at Kotkaniemi’s expense.

Again, with things ramping up quickly, there isn’t much time for patience. If Kotkaniemi struggles tonight, I’d expect him to be bumped down immediately for Domi. He could even be scratched for Jake Evans who can handle a fourth line centre role right now.

Next. Top storylines to come out of Habs camp. dark

It might just be an exhibition game, but for Kotkaniemi, Fleury and Kulak it is a chance to show they belong in the lineup when the rubber hits the road against the Pens.