Think about it: the 20-year-old has the opportunity to change the perspective of his second season, to transform what was widely perceived as a big step back in his development into a significant step forward.
The door is wide open for Kotkaniemi to gain the most valuable experience of his career to date. And, above all, he has the chance to prove that he is worthy of the role that was envisioned when the organization drafted him third overall in 2018.
If at first it was (reasonably) assumed that Kotkaniemi was most likely competing for an in-depth role and was simply serving as a placeholder for Max Domi, who is type 1 diabetic and is waiting to decide whether or not to join the team in Brossard in the coming days, Canadiens coach Claude Julien, dispelling this notion Tuesday, was an important development.
The fact that the coach had done all he could to congratulate Kotkaniemi, in response to a question about rookie Nick Suzuki, was an indication that the child would at least have a chance to work in the lineup himself. This is something Kotkaniemi was not even sure of when he landed in Montreal last week.
But this? It was something else.
“Well, what I would like to think, and what I would like Kotkaniemi to think, is that this week and next week, if he can continue to show us how far he has progressed …”, a declared Julien before concluding, “It is not because Max is not there for the moment that he automatically returns to Kotkaniemi who will be removed from (a line with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen). We will make these decisions, as I told everyone, as we move forward here. “
– Eric Engels (@EricEngels) July 15, 2020
If they had been done before we arrived here, it was hard to imagine that Kotkaniemi would be sketched in a secure role of any kind, let alone that of the third line.
The native of Pori, Finland, struggled to get out of the door in September. Shortly after the start of the season, after only producing two goals in October, he was stationed for two weeks to heal a groin injury that had persisted since the start of training camp. And just when he seemed to be gaining momentum in early December, he took a devastating hit from Colorado Avalanche defender Nikita Zadorov who thwarted him and sidelined him for almost a month.
By the month of January, Kotkaniemi had become a player that Julien frequently mentioned in answers to questions that had nothing to do with him – and it was certainly not to praise him.
The child’s production was nonexistent, he was barely effective without the puck, and his confidence was shattered. Julien had lost patience with the process as mistakes accumulated and the Canadians increasingly slipped out of the quarterfinals.
Kotkaniemi’s frustration had clearly reached its tipping point as well. The fact that he classified his demotion to the AHL’s Rocket de Laval on January 18 as “an exciting opportunity” confirmed him – even if he was really excited to just have the chance to play a bigger role and be allowed to make certain mistakes that can be forgiven at this level.
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It must have been a huge relief for the Canadians, and certainly for Kotkaniemi, that he had 13 points in 12 games with the Rocket after only eight points in 36 games with the big club.
But a spleen injury in Game 12, which was supposed to keep him from playing for the rest of the season, made Kotkaniemi an afterthought in any NHL return to play scenario and the NHLPA between mid-March. and early May.
Months of rest – and the long NHL break due to COVID-19 – changed that for Kotkaniemi, and it now appears that his three-day camp performance with the Canadiens has changed him significantly.
“Well, I think the most important thing (when) we sent him … we talked about it yesterday … his skating was not at the level it was before, and because of that all his game s ‘collapsed,’ Julien said Wednesday. . “When you don’t have the rhythm, you try to make games (and) the games are interrupted. He was getting frustrated that things weren’t going as well as he used to see and I think his confidence was obviously But when you look at him now and you see how much he skates, a lot of things get started in place, which was not the case at the time. This is probably the most important thing here.
“Is he going to need coaching?” Absolutely. Like everyone, there are certain things. These good players, they want to make good games all the time and sometimes the games are not there. Part of it comes from experience, others will get better over time. We have to be patient, and at the same time we have to teach. And I think right now, I keep saying, I like what I’ve seen so far because his skating is back where I think we saw him at his best at a moment and the rest of the game seems to fall into place slowly. ”
Even teammate Phillip Danault, who had to worry about his work through his first three training sessions since March, was impressed.
“I only saw him in training, so it’s hard to say,” warned Danault. “But I can tell you that his shot is really devastating. It became a little harder, a little bigger, it obviously gained in maturity. But, like I said, I’ve only seen it in three workouts, so it’s hard to say. I have to see it in a game situation. But I like what I see so far. ”
If you’re a fan of Canadians, you have to like what you hear (or read).
It must have been encouraging to discover that Kotkaniemi could participate in this training camp after the severity of his injury in March cast doubt on this possibility. Knowing that he immediately makes an impression – especially after his tumultuous season – must be reassuring.
And this comment from Julien should also be appreciated.
“This guy is a future player who should be with this organization for a long time, so there is no doubt that you have to work with him,” said the coach. “In his case, I think the best thing to let KK do right now is to let him in, let him skate, let him play, give him confidence.” He doesn’t need to face me the first day after to tell him, “I want you to do this and that.”
“What I have seen so far has been, as I said, encouraging. So I let it roll a little. But there is no doubt that we will sit down and have a conversation at some point. ”
The fact that it is a priority for Julien to do so as soon as possible speaks volumes about the opportunity that Kotkaniemi has before him.
If the six-foot-two center can grab it, it will be a massive development for him and the Canadians.