Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed flashes of becoming a top centre down the road for the Habs last season. What type of an increase in production should they be expecting from him in 2019-20?
Heading into training camp, it was far from a guarantee that he’d even make the team. His initial showing at the rookie tournament was anything but impressive but he made steady improvements throughout it and the preseason where he was given a very long look. In the end, he forced himself onto the roster and into a regular role.
His emergence as someone that the team was comfortable using down the middle right away helped pave the way for the team to quickly part with Tomas Plekanec to secure him a regular spot on the third line. Kotkaniemi certainly didn’t look out of place in that spot most nights.
He wasn’t overly productive during the first half of the season with just four goals before the calendar flipped to 2019 but he made considerable strides at the defensive side of the rink to the point where Claude Julien wasn’t always shielding him against quality competition.
There were some signs of improvement early in the second half as Kotkaniemi became a bit more effective with his shot. However, he also ran out of gas for the stretch run to the point where he was given a few nights off. The timing wasn’t ideal given that they were in the thick of a playoff race but considering that he had never played as many games as he had, it was also quite reasonable.
There were a couple of interesting stats in his rookie season. He failed to score a single goal on the road nor did he score in any game the Canadiens lost in regulation. There aren’t any conclusions that can really be drawn from that (a drop of output is understandable without the last line change) nor is it all that relevant for fantasy purposes but that’s not a stat line that you come across too often.
Season/Career Stats: 79 GP, 11 goals, 23 assists, 34 points, +1 rating, 26 PIMS, 1 PPG, 2 GWG, 134 shots, 13:44 ATOI, 57.0 CF%
On the one hand, it’s quite reasonable to expect that Julien will look to up Kotkaniemi’s workload in his sophomore season. He could very well become a franchise forward down the road so keeping him on the third line with wingers that aren’t quite at the same skill level is somewhat counterproductive.
On the other hand, it would also be counterproductive to break up Brendan Gallagher’s line that saw Phillip Danault have a breakout year as the centre there or shifting Max Domi back to the wing after he led the team in scoring while adapting to playing down the middle. From a team perspective, it’s a nice ‘problem’ to have.
To start the season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kotkaniemi back on the third line in the same role he had last year. That would allow him to work through any potential sophomore slump while giving the team time to see if Danault can continue to hold down his spot with Gallagher and if Domi can have a repeat performance. If one of those things don’t happen, then Kotkaniemi would have a nice spot to move up into.
But what if that doesn’t happen? I think it’s quite possible that he spends a lot of the year on the third line. The Habs aren’t a team that has the firepower to load things up; instead, they’re a score-by-committee type of squad. That lends itself towards trying to spread out the offence and in doing so, it ultimately limits what Kotkaniemi’s overall points potential for next season could be, even if he is a regular on the power play.
The sky is the limit for Kotkaniemi in the long haul. But he’s not going to get there (or even close) in 2019-20. It’s certainly possible that his ATOI could tick up towards the 15-minute mark even if he stays on the third line but there probably won’t be a big jump in production.
That makes him a bit of a risky keeper option in those pools, especially if there are only a few spots available. He’s certainly someone that will be a keeper-calibre player down the road but if you opt to protect him heading into this season, you’ll be leaving some points on the table.
In a standard 12-team league, he’s a late-round pick at best unless there are early signs that Julien is willing to shake things up and put him in a top-six role. In deeper pools, he’s someone that should be looked at in the back third of a draft but let’s face it, he’ll be going well before then. Someone is going to take a swing on the obvious upside even though it may be one season too early to do so.