After an abysmal 2017-2018 campaign, Habs brass promised change. With the summer quickly coming to an end, many fans remain disappointed since not much change has come to the proven on-ice personnel poised to wear the historic jersey for the upcoming season. Where the team did commit to change is in overhauling their coaching staff at all levels of the organization, as well as a serious revamp of their prospect pool. While the new-found depth of that pool promises a better future, this new and improved coaching staff still requires some talent to coach to still be around when said depth arrives at the pro ranks.
Enter Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the Habs newest third overall draft selection. The choice has been debated all summer since Bergevin’s group committed to a somewhat “off the board” pick. As is the case with many players acquired in any year’s top-three, Kotkaniemi should be playing in Montreal this upcoming season. In fact, one must simply see the current situation in Montreal to understand that Kotkaniemi should play in Montreal – from team performance, to the new coaching staff, to the future of the franchise, right down to sending the right message to fans and media.
As mentioned, the revamped coaching staff needs a realistic chance to prove their worth. This would mean that they should be taking Kotkaniemi and providing the proper tools for him to succeed. This includes sharing their wealth of knowledge for the kid to learn from. While some would argue that this can be done in a nine-game span to start the season, it would make far more sense to completely trust this new staff to deliver the goods and allow them to make the decision as to whether Kotkaniemi remains in Montreal after those initial nine games have expired. Due to the current expectations placed on the Canadiens this season, keeping Kotkaniemi in Montreal would allow him to focus on becoming an NHLer while playing centre under an excellent coaching staff and not too much pressure.
The focus in that last sentence must be placed on the idea of playing centre. If the coaching staff thinks they can shelter him by moving him to the wing for the season, then forget about it and send him to Finland. Many will look to the Alex Galchenyuk experiment and suggest that Kotkaniemi should return to Finland to avoid the same disaster, but one must look at the two big differences in their respective situations. Galchenyuk would have returned to junior to flourish as an offensive centreman while Kotkaniemi has already produced and would be returning to Finland to hone his 200-foot game as a pivot. How is that learning going to be different or better than him learning it under the defensive-minded Claude Julien?
Speaking of Julien, he has a much better track record with young pivots than his predecessor. Can anyone argue that Patrice Bergeron became a better player than Galchenyuk? In fact, I would argue that his work with the kids last season alone should provide ample confidence that Julien will do what is right by Kotkaniemi. His work with Jonathan Drouin, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak, and Victor Mete was great last season.
Another aspect that would work in favour of Kotkaniemi remaining in Montreal is the current state of the franchise. Montreal’s current roster up the middle leaves much to be desired and this is largely responsible for last year’s debacle. Kotkaniemi provides an immediate boost of talent to the group of pivots that desperately needs one, even if some rookie mistakes end up costing the team some games. The Habs are not likely to be competing for a playoff position, so even the argument of the World Junior Championship can be thrown out the window; since the Habs took advantage of their poor positioning to allow Mete to go last season, they’re likely to allow Kotkaniemi to participate also.
Moreover, there isn’t much for Kotkaniemi to gain by playing elsewhere. If he lights up the league in Finland, fans and media in Montreal will expect him to arrive in the NHL and do the same. This simply isn’t accurate as more adaptation will be required. Most importantly, Kotkaniemi should remain in Montreal if he earns a spot on the team for the simple reason that the NHL is the best hockey league in the world which means that every team should be icing their best possible roster, even if that includes a young rookie as their top pivot.
Keeping Kotkaniemi in Montreal would send the proper message to the fans and media surrounding the team. The stockpiling of draft picks and subsequent lack of signing any available player this summer points to management being aware a rebuild/retool is in order, even if they are unwilling to say so publicly. Allowing Kotkaniemi to grow in Montreal is another move that would point to this very harsh reality.
With this reality comes a lowering of expectations. This would provide the perfect opportunity for Kotkaniemi to get used to the Montreal media circus so that he knows how to handle things when pressure does arrive and gets added to his own personal expectations. For those worried about the long-term financials implicated with keeping the rookie pivot in Montreal, consider the likely work stoppage that will once again change the landscape of the league. Otherwise, consider the ever-rising salary cap. Then, consider that this is a team that is unable to spend the currently allocated money. Therefore, it makes little sense to worry about future money implications over and above developing an asset properly.
Finally, and likely the best reason to keep Jesperi in Montreal: Temper expectations! Kotkaniemi was the third overall selection and one that the Habs reached to grab at that position. This is NOT the next Sidney Crosby. Watching the young man’s growing pains will be a constant reminder of that reality which should temper expectations for the player and the team. Even if the team starts to win, rookie mistakes will happen which will serve as a reminder that this a year to build the team and not to contend.
No matter what is said about Jesperi Kotkaniemi playing in Montreal this season, one this is certain, he must earn the right to stay here in training camp, it can’t just be handed to him. Much like Victor Mete last season, the slots he wants on the roster are currently occupied by veteran players, so it will be up to him to show management that he belongs on the roster more than Tomas Plekanec, Jonathan Drouin, Phillip Danault, Matt Peca, Jacob de la Rose, Byron Froese, and even Jake Evans. A tall task awaits the young man, but that’s par for the course when you face the unenviable distinction of being a highly-touted third overall selection for the Montreal Canadiens.