There has been plenty of debate as to whether or not Jesperi Kotkaniemi is ready for NHL action. Perhaps the bigger question from a long-term development perspective is whether or not he should even be given the chance in 2018-19.
As the third overall pick back in June, his lofty draft status alone should at least have him in the conversation for a spot on the Habs. Add in the fact that Montreal’s centre group isn’t exactly the most talented group and on the surface, there’s a pretty compelling case to be made.
While I don’t want to read too much (or anything at all, really) into his preseason action thus far, he has looked pretty good. I think he could hold his own in Montreal. However, just because he could play with the Canadiens doesn’t necessarily mean he should.
Kotkaniemi isn’t in the same situation as some junior-aged players who are simply too good for the CHL but can’t go to the minors due to the transfer agreement with that league. He was drafted out of the Finnish SM-liiga where no such restrictions apply.
It’s not as if the 18-year-old (who just turned 18 a month ago) lit up the league where there’s no point in returning either. Yes, his 29 points in 57 games last year was quite impressive but that can certainly be improved upon. There’s also the fact that he spent last year primarily as a winger. There’s no doubt he’ll be a centre in Montreal but to go from the wing in Finland to down the middle in the best league in the world is a tough transition for anyone. There are bound to be growing pains and personally, wouldn’t it be better if he went through those back at home (on a team where his father happens to be the head coach)?
Under Montreal’s current management, the team has been all over the place when it comes to prospects debuting in the NHL. Some haven’t looked ready and were rushed anyway (such as Michael McCarron) while others looked ready and still had to wait a while longer (Charles Hudon). As a result, it’s hard to get a true baseline of their philosophies.
Last season, Victor Mete unexpectedly made the team as a 19-year old and the team gave him a chance to play right away. However, they made a big mistake by choosing to let him go past the 40-game mark and burning a year of team control in the process. They chose to prioritize a maximum of nine weeks of then-meaningless NHL action over an extra guaranteed year of having him around. (I won’t blame them for the fact he got injured shortly after that – that’s just bad luck.) That was bad long-term thinking on a team that really needs to be thinking about the long-term.
Let’s lay out the situation for Kotkaniemi. The SM-liiga season ends in mid-March and the opening round of the playoffs is only a best-of-three (with the top teams getting byes). It’s certainly plausible that the Habs will still be playing (even if they’re not in postseason contention) at that time. If you’re of the mindset that Montreal should give him a few games to get his feet wet (up to nine before he burns the first year of his contract), wouldn’t it be more ideal to play Kotkaniemi at the end of the year to truly assess his readiness for 2019-20? (The other option would be to send him to Laval at that point where he’d certainly benefit from a development perspective as well.)
Again, I think Kotkaniemi could hold his own and develop somewhat with Montreal this coming season. However, he could also develop while getting to stay at home for another year while also suiting up at the World Juniors in December. He could also benefit from playing a full year in Laval but given the two scenarios, let the kid stay at home…and as a freshly-turned 18-year-old, let’s not forget he still is one.
From an asset management standpoint, why burn one year of team control on a season where the Habs aren’t believed to be much of a contender? Wouldn’t it be better to have that extra year later on when the team is hopefully better constructed to contend? Yes, there’s the potential to sign him long-term in his RFA years which could make that point moot but it’s far from a guarantee that it happens. And wouldn’t it be better three years from now when instead of having him on a second contract, he’s still on his entry-level deal? It’s around that time that some believe the team will be poised to make a bit of a push and having him on a deal that’s a few million dollars less would certainly come in handy.
If it was up to me, Kotkaniemi’s stay in the preseason wouldn’t last more than the first couple of games. Let him have a taste and then let him go home to work on his full-time transition to playing down the middle. Then when his season is up, they may get the chance to give him some NHL action or toss him into what hopefully will be a postseason push in Laval. That would be a strong season from a player development perspective and they can do all that and still not burn a year of his contract.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is going to be a core piece for the Canadiens for many years to come. Given the perception to many that the team went off the board to pick him, the scrutiny will be even more intense than it would for a typical number three pick. The weight of the franchise will be on him soon enough but that process doesn’t need to be rushed. Let him develop a bit slower and their patience should be rewarded in the long haul.