Most of the NHL’s crossover scouts attend the U-18 World Championships in April because it often gives them the best indication of just what a prospect may look like when he is fully matured at the NHL level. If he can do something tangible versus his top peers, odds are decent that, with proper development, someday he will be able to do so at the NHL level as well.
One of the main reasons I was so intrigued with Jesperi Kotkaniemi in his draft year was how he was able to quarterback Finland’s power play in the last two U-18 tournaments of the year. He often parked himself on the left wall and constantly made plays to keep the puck moving, and his opponents in disarray. He was especially effective at getting the puck back to the point.
You fast forward three years, and you see examples of that from Kotkaniemi on the power play quite often in the past two weeks, since Alex Burrows has taken over duties and expanded KK’s role. It’s still a small sample size, but it has been some time since a Habs’ forward has looked as good as Kotkaniemi has on the PP the past six games. He’s creating tons of chances for his club. I have to say none of this surprises me, though, as I saw it in 2018 versus his peers.
I put togather a bunch of video highlights from his standout U-18 performance in April of 2018. Kotkaniemi was a major reason why Finland won gold in that tournament. Three assists and gritty play versus Russia, a scintillating goal against Sweden in a 2-0 win, and then that clutch performance versus the US for all of the marbles.
Kotkaniemi had two assists in the 3-2 victory, including the shorthanded setup on the gold-medal winning goal. Kotkaniemi went head-to-head versus Jack Hughes in that game and kept the tournament’s leading scorer off of the scoresheet. Kotkaniemi was outstanding in all facets of his game throughout the event, and was particularly effective on the power play. He finished tied for sixth overall in scoring, and second in plus/minus.
Granted, he had 2019 second-overall pick Kappo Kakko playing on his wing, but to me that only demonstrated how he is able to work effectively with high-end linemates, and only further proof that he should no longer be hampered by low-scoring linemates like Artturi Lehkonen on the Canadiens.
Here is a power play where Kotkaniemi displayed his patience…not forcing a pass that didn’t work, or taking a shot that would inevitably be blocked:
Kotkaniemi mixed up his plays throughout the tournament. Sometimes he slid the puck over to Kakko open on the right side; other times he put it down low to Niklas Nordgren at the left siide of the net, but quite often he faked both of those options and got it back to his left defenceman. Be it a forehand, backhand, pass through a defender or bank pass off of the boards. KK was constantly mixing things up, including taking the shot…usually his hard wrister, that, with a little luck, would have gone in more frequently.
Here’s one instance where he moves in on the defenders, draws them further and further away from his defenceman, then slides it back. It ends up quickly being a great scoring chance for Kakko as all of the Swedish defenders were down low trying to prevent a KK shot or pass.
KK spent most of his power play time on the left side of the ice sliding back and forth between the blueline and half wall, but he was by no means stationary, and he moved around. Here’s one instance where he got over to the right side of the ice, and scored the all-important insurance marker on an absolute rocket one-timer:
On these two plays, he provides the screen for Finland goals on the PP, further examples of how he mixed it up in regards to positioning:
Here’s a power-play shift where he makes three smart plays…all completely different. The first one he moves down the left side, fakes giving it back to the defenceman, fakes shooting, then passes to Nordgren. Second time he takes the shot; third time he passes it back to the defender. I’m not sure how you pre-scout that; he didn’t show tendencies in his decision-making. What he did do is process the situation and usually make the best play:
Finland spent most of their power plays in the other team’s end, but when the puck was iced, Kotkaniemi was also effective in being relied on to enter the zone with the puck as well.
Here’s one example where he enters the zone, makes a skilled pass to Kakko on the right, goes to the net and almost tips in a pass, then sets up on the left point. He eventually winds up with a splendid scoring chance on a blazing wrister that was only kept from bulging the twine by a great pad save:
No assist for Kotkaniemi on this goal in the gold-medal match where he entered the zone and got the puck back to Rasmus Kupari. He certainly was a key figure in creating the goal, however:
How many players have a behind-the-back backhand bank shot pass to the defenceman as a regular weapon in their repertoires? KK does; this was just one of many I’ve seen this pass from him since I first started scouting him in 2016:
This shift pretty much encapsulates what it was like at the tournament trying to contain KK on the PP. Quite simply…a handful. Terrific feed back to the dman to start the play, then another savvy behind-the-back-pass to the blueline, and ends it with a great scoring chance on a hard wrister.
I compiled this longer video of significant power play moments involving Kotkaniemi that was posted yesterday on Recrutes’ YouTube channel:
He played on the point, he played on the left wall, he worked down low along the boards, he stood in the crease to screen the goalie, he wandered over to the right side to unleash a rocket that sunk the Swedes.
Kotkaniemi was matched up against Jack Hughes in the gold-medal game, and he was rather abrasive with the young American phenom, giving him a few whacks and punches during the game to let him know that if he’s going to shoot the puck after the whistle or try to get in the goalie’s grill, Hughes was going to pay the price. He also dominated him in the faceoff circle.
Kotkaniemi did not play a whole bunch on the penalty kill for Finland during the tournament, but with the score 2-2 midway through the third period and Finland down a man, his coach put him out with Nordgren on a hunch, and it paid off. Those two were feeling it in the final game, and Kotkaniemi rewarded his coach with a great play to set up Nordgren for the game-winning goal.
Here is a collection of some of the more significant plays Kotkaniemi made in the tournament at even strength:
The U-18s were far from perfect for KK. Much like in the NHL, he made a few risky decisions and turned pucks over on occasion. He had shifts where he failed to properly cover his man, especially Hughes, but he stepped up in the big games, and was the best player in the tournament by far on the power play. No one else ran it more efficiently and smartly. Given that extra space, KK some day will produce a lot of power play points too.
You saw so many things that made him a solid choice to go third overall. A 6-2 center with room to grow physically, one with a long stride who covered a lot of territory, who competed and even played with an edge (he led the tournament in PIM’s with 33). High-end hockey sense, superior vision and good puck/passing skills. All of the attributes to one day be an elite top-two NHL center, and perhaps even a solid first-line pivot.
Even more impressive than his performance in April was how he looked in February at the Five Nations Cup. I know it’s been said that he improved all year but that’s technically not true – his real coming out party, and the tournament that convinced the Canadiens that he was the top center in the draft…happened two months earlier.
There was a game against Sweden where he put on one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen from a player at a U-18 tournament. He dominated from start to finish, and it was at that point that he moved into my top five for the draft, when on a lot of independent lists he was still regarded as a mid-to-late first round prospect. Let’s just say that he reconfirmed my impressions in the final tournament; I certainly didn’t need to be convinced that he was the best centerman in the draft at that point.
We’ve seen that with KK at times since he was drafted. We’d witness a marked improvement in a three month span or so…then he’d plateau for a stretch and maybe even appeared to regress a bit. That was the case in his rookie season where he burst out of the gate, but then hit a mid-season lull where it was apparent that he could have used some AHL seasoning.
There will still be some more growing pains given that he is only 20 years of age, but his play in the past six games has been at a level we had yet to see from him – that power-play potential that was so apparent in his draft year is starting to reveal itself, and that’s an exciting thing. It would not surprise me if you don’t eventually see Kotkaniemi manning the left point on the first power play instead of Drouin. Certainly, he could be used on the left wing, or even center for that matter, and let Nick Suzuki center the second unit as there isn’t really another one to do so if KK moves up.
I do know that the second unit has been better than the first since the coaching change, and Kotkaniemi is a big reason for that. I can see him and Cole Caufield being the main weapons on the first power play, perhaps even as soon as next season.
I’ll end this with the video I made of Kotkaniemi from last night’s 2-1 loss to Vancouver. Apart from a couple of inconsequential turnovers, he was outstanding, and that intriguing offensive upside that Montreal’s scouting staff saw in 2018 is more apparent by the week.
The best is yet to come.