Jesperi Kotkaniemi has played in two NHL seasons with the second one yielding a much different performance than his rookie year. What should the Habs expect from him this season?
Expectations were rather high for Kotkaniemi going into the year even though his role hadn’t really changed. Phillip Danault and Max Domi were set as the top two centres and Nick Suzuki was starting on the right wing after earning a spot on the roster. At the very least, the hope was that he’d be able to build on what was a decent rookie year.
That didn’t happen. Although he got off to a good start with two goals in the first three games of the year, things went off the rails quickly after that as he had just four more the rest of the way. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity either; his ATOI was pretty close to his rookie year and there were only three games where he had less than ten minutes (and he was injured early in one of them while he had a ten-minute misconduct in another). Mercifully, with his confidence fading, he was sent to Laval at the beginning of February. He was a bit better there before a splenic injury ended his regular season before the pandemic could.
While he was initially ruled out for the rest of the year, the fact that the playoffs dragged out into August allowed him to come back for the play in the bubble. He was much better in the postseason and played more assertively after being more of a passive player for most of the year. The end result was him tying for the team lead in goals (on an entirely unsustainable shooting percentage), allowing him to end what was a tough campaign overall on a relatively high note.
Season Stats: 36 GP, 6 goals, 2 assists, 8 points, -11 rating, 23 PIMS, 1 PPG, 0 GWG, 55 shots, 13:00 ATOI, 53.7 CF%
Playoff Stats: 10 GP, 4 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, +4 rating, 23 PIMS, 1 PPG, 0 GWG, 11 shots, 13:53 ATOI, 62.7 CF%
Normally, this would be the section where we’d look at the averages to help establish a baseline level of expectations. But that would be useless with Kotkaniemi as his numbers from last year largely offset his numbers from his rookie campaign to the point where the averages aren’t relevant at all. As a result, let’s omit that section.
There is the role that many fans want to see and the one that Claude Julien wants Kotkaniemi to play. They are not the same at all. The former is a spot in the top six, somewhat based on a partial-series performance against Philadelphia when Kirk Muller was serving as interim head coach in Julien’s absence. The latter is the role he had last year, centre on the third line behind Danault (and now Suzuki instead of Domi). My money’s on him being on the third line.
If you’re unhappy with that, it’s not all bad news. Montreal’s extra depth on the wings should result in him having better options than before. Assuming the Danault line stays intact, it means that one of Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Toffoli, and Josh Anderson will be with Kotkaniemi. If we’re reading anything from the early training camp lines, it’ll be Toffoli that’s on that trio.
From a special teams perspective, I don’t see much changing. He won’t be on the penalty kill and he isn’t going to be anywhere near the top unit on the power play anytime soon. Two things need to change for that to happen – he needs to not be so hesitant in shooting the puck and he needs to be able to win a faceoff. Whether or not you think there’s much importance in faceoffs, Julien clearly does and when they’re looking at tweaks to help the power play, not chasing the puck back to their own end off the draw as often as they did is a place to start. If he improves on those, there’s room for him to have an uptick in power play time.
There are some people who will have Kotkaniemi as a sleeper pick in fantasy drafts. Don’t be one of them. Unless one of Danault or Suzuki is injured for an extended period of time, there isn’t going to be room for Kotkaniemi to move up into a top-six role which is where he needs to be in order to be fantasy-relevant in smaller leagues, even with someone like Toffoli on the wing.
That said, he’s still serviceable in deeper leagues. I’m intrigued by the physicality he played with in the bubble and while it’s definitely a small sample size, that’s an element that could boost his fantasy profile. I also expect a small uptick in shot rate so for leagues that have those as stats, he’d get a small boost but otherwise, I’d leave him on the waiver wire except in the deepest of leagues as it’s hard to envision him playing much higher than a 35-point pace (over a full season) in a 3C role, especially on a team that’s going to be taking a by-committee approach to scoring.
This isn’t to denigrate Kotkaniemi by any stretch. He’s going to be an important player for the Habs this season if they’re going to have the type of success they’re hoping to have. But there are role players who are more valuable on the ice than in fantasy leagues. This coming season, I think he’s one of those.