Just Say Jes to KK in the Top Six
August 13, 2021
By Grant McCagg
There has been much discussion about Montreal seeking a veteran center to fill a top-two slot on the Canadiens in 2021-22.
It’s been more than two weeks since free agency opened up, and Bergevin has added one part-time center in Cedric Paquette. No move has been orchestrated to find Phil Danault’s replacement in a top-two role.
Bergevin’s biggest free-agent signing was Mike Hoffman, and he is definitely not moving into the middle. So what’s the plan, the Grand Design? Do the Canadiens hand a top-two spot to the Heir Apparent…the club’s third-overall pick from 2018? The answer is Jes.
Bergevin was noticeably reluctant to anoint Jesperi Kotkaniemi a second-line role to start the 2021-22 campaign in his last press conference. Yet one wonders if that’s not part of his negotiation strategy given that KK has yet to sign his second NHL contract. If Bergevin goes on record stating that he is a second-line center from the drop of the puck this season do you not think that KK’s agent isn’t using that as leverage in negotiations?
It certainly can’t be argued that giving Kotkaniemi an offensive role would be an uncommonly rash decision within the organization. Danault had less than 240 pro games under his belt when he was handed a first-line spot a couple of months into the 2016-17 season. Even more significantly, he had not even appeared in 100 NHL games yet when he was put on a regular line with Max Pacioretty and Alex Radulov.
Kotkaniemi has played 264 pro games over the past four seasons, 200 of which have come in the NHL. When training camp opens for Montreal, KK will have appeared in 29 NHL playoff games in the previous 13 months. Danault had never played an NHL playoff game when he became Montreal’s first-line center.
Jonathan Drouin had played less than ten pro games at center when the Canadiens, after one training camp, utilized him in a top-two center role in his inaugural season with the club. Drouin was not close to being as accomplished defensively at the time as Kotkaniemi is today, so why is there an apparent reluctance to give KK the same opportunity they afforded the 22-year-old Drouin at the time? KK is bigger, stronger and more competitive than Drouin was in 2017, so it’s a curious question. I get that it was out of need when they moved Drouin to center but it’s out of need today as well. The club needs a second-line center and there is a very capable one staring them in the face.
Suzuki was a second-line center on the Canadiens after playing less than 40 pro games. Yes; he was already prepared to handle the role given his tremendous hockey sense and talent but are we to believe that halfway through his NHL rookie season he was more prepared physically and experience-wise to play in the top six than KK will be by October of this year?
Kotkaniemi has yet to play between top-six wingers with any regularity during his 200 NHL games. Even more significantly…he hasn’t played with regular linemates…period. No other Montreal center has been bounced around like KK. Last year in just 56 games, Kotkaniemi had 18 different sets of wingers/centers on his line, even spending a few games on the wing with Danault and Staal. No other center came close to having that much upheaval.
Has a young NHL center EVER been highly productive without at least semi-regular linemates? It’s a rarity, to be sure. You have to develop chemistry and learn your linemates’ tendencies. One has to wonder just how productive KK may have been in the playoffs if he had been given Cole Caufield as a linemate for 20 games. I do know one thing – the likelihood that he would have sat out the last couple of games of the playoffs would have been infinitely lower.
Suzuki has surpassed him in the pecking order, and that’s fine – he looks like a future star. It’s also understandable that Danault was given a more significant role the past three seasons given his ability to shut down other teams’ top lines.
Alas, it’s time for KK to fill Phil’s shoes….or skates, in this instance. I think Bergevin believes that too, despite many ascertaining that Bergevin’s cautionary words were a surefire sign that he doesn’t think KK is ready to play a top-two role. I think the opposite is more likely, and here’s why:
1/ He’s still negotiating with KK, as noted above.
2/ He doesn’t want to put undue pressure on the 21-year-old. Let him earn the spot in training camp. At the same time, Bergevin doesn’t want KK to think he has the spot sewn up. Bergevin wants Kotkaniemi to come to camp in tip-top shape and be champing at the bit to prove he’s ready for a bigger role.
3/ Bergevin would like fellow young centers Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling to think they have a shot at playing in the top six, and having that belief will inspire them to have terrific offseasons as well. What Bergevin wants more than anything is for all of his young centers to work harder than ever this summer and to be lights out in the preseason. He’d like all three to look like they’re ready to play a second-line center role in training camp. So imagine how it would feel for Poehling to hear that Bergevin is already handing the job to Kotkaniemi…a center who is younger than him.
For all of those reasons, Bergevin wasn’t tipping his hand, especially when the decision isn’t really up to him anyway. Dom Ducharme and his coaching staff will decide who is most deserving to center the second line on opening night. Bergevin may be in on some discussions and add his two cents, but the decision, ultimately, will be Ducharme’s. That’s why he’s the head coach…it’s part of his job description.
Kotkaniemi has not had the opportunity to play with genuine top-six wingers for any appreciable length of time in the past. This year…barring several injuries…it will happen no matter what if the club can find the right combination and remain patient with both him and his linemates. There may not be much difference in ice time between the second and third lines, and that’s fine…just as long as KK isn’t looking at different linemates every week.
Kotkaniemi’s biggest issue has been consistency. One would have to think that the odds of him finding consistency increase greatly if he has at least one regular linemate that can help generate offence. Not Lehkonen…not Byron…not Armia…his most regular linemates in the past. A Gallagher, a Drouin, a Toffoli, or a Hoffman. At least one of those four will start the season with Kotkaniemi. Unless they are absolutely putrid…keep them together…let them develop chemistry. Allow them to go through some growing pains, and adapt.
Make Kotkaniemi earn the second-line spot in training camp…and when he most likely does…show confidence in him. Give him a long leash, let him learn from his infrequent giveaways and missed defensive assignments. Take the good with the bad, and at the bare minimum, give KK regular offensive linemates for the first quarter of the season. If he has 5-7 points after 20 games, is playing poorly in his own end and lacking confidence, then you switch things up.
There are many who insist that Kotkaniemi is going to be a third-line center at best; that he lacks the offensive skills and instincts to play in a top-six role. I disagree. We don’t see it every night, but he possesses above-average NHL offensive talent. His shot, vision and passing skills are all elite. What he needs more than anything is the confidence to utilize those skills in the best league in the world, and that feeling will grow with offensive opportunity. He has needed to get stronger, and that has happened. Now what he needs is to feel comfortable and confident every game. That comes with stability, patience and opportunity from the coaching staff.
Kotkaniemi has played in 29 playoff games in the past 13 months, and scored nine goals in those games. That is a 25-goal pace over an 82-game schedule. If given an offensive role and linemates that can develop chemistry with him and feed him the puck more regularly than a Byron or Lehkonen, it’s not unreasonable to expect 20+ goals this season. This will be the first season that KK won’t be one of the youngest players in the league…can we not, therefore, assume that he can take a sizable leap in his production? As the saying goes…”You’ll never know until you try.”
The time is nigh to grant Kotkaniemi a legitimate shot at playing center in a top-six role. The club gave Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Tomas Plekanec, Danault, Drouin and Suzuki that opportunity before any of them ever played 200 NHL games. It’s time for the highest draft pick of them all to get his opportunity.
Couldn’t agree more. I hadn’t put enough consideration into the contract negotiation. Let’s all look to be pleasantly surprised by a Kotkaniemi surge.