Kotkaniemi or Tkachuk? The Tale of the Tape
March 1, 2021
By Grant McCagg
KK or TK? The debate rages on these days as Brady Tkachuk once again had a stellar game versus the Canadiens, and now has nine goals on the season while Jesperi Kotkaniemi has netted just two.
Actually; there’s not much to debate right now. Clearly, Tkachuk is the better NHLer at this point, and if you were a betting man, you would likely put your money on him having a better NHL career. He just set a record as the fastest Ottawa Senators’ player to score his first 50 goals, and Senators’ fans and media are understandably gushing over him.
Where the annoyance comes in is when you repeatedly hear and see comments on how the Canadiens messed up in taking Kotkaniemi third overall in 2018 instead of Tkachuk.
As an avid draft follower for almost 50 years now, history has taught me that the most important virtue when attempting to judge draft classes is patience, especially when one player is almost a year older than another (Tkachuk is ten months older).
When Habs’ fans and certain members of the media complain that Tkachuk should have been Montreal’s choice instead of Kotkaniemi in the 2018 draft, I am always reminded of similar consternation after Max Pacioretty was selected ahead of QMJHL forward David Perron in the 2007 NHL draft.
The Canadiens, we were reminded on message boards at the time, had made a huge mistake not taking Perron! He made the Blues in his first NHL training camp and scored 124 points in his first three seasons. Pacioretty played a year of NCAA hockey, and then, in his first two years of pro hockey, had accumulated just 25 NHL points. Obviously…this was ample proof that Perron was better and would always be better!
The criticism reached its peak the following season when Pacioretty once again went back to the AHL for more seasoning. Surely, he was going to be yet another first-round bust by the Canadiens. Well; we all know what happened after that: Perron has never hit the 30-goal mark in an NHL season. Pacioretty? He now has seven 30-goal seasons, and may hit 30 again this year in a 56-game season. Pacioretty has clearly had the better career.
There is a scouts’ rule of thumb that you don’t start judging a draft class for a minimum of five years, and there is sound logic behind that axiom.
“You have to wait five years at least,” said one scout. “Some guys just keep getting better; some guys just plateau. Every player is on a different development curve, so don’t get too judgemental on a young guy. The important thing is that they are NHL players, and finding another level every year.”
David Perron was 19 years old, and had already been passed over in a draft when St. Louis drafted him 26th overall in 2007. Pacioretty was 18 and in his first year of eligibility when Montreal selected him with the 22nd pick. It did not seem to occur to many impatient Habs’ fans that the younger prospect might need more time.
One must also take into consideration in Kotkaniemi’s case that Scandinavian athletes are often on a bit of a slower development path physically. Quite a few of them mature physically a little later than their North American counterparts.
Tkachuk had no such issue, having grown up in North America and already playing an NHL style of game. He comes about that naturally, being the son of one of the NHL’s all-time great power forwards, and watching his older brother Matt play a similar style.
“Tkachuk was physically mature in his draft year, unlike Kotkaniemi,” noted one NHL scout. “He’s still filling out his frame.”
Tkachuk grew up in a hockey household knowing what he had to do to play in the NHL from the first time he picked up a hockey stick. How to train, what to eat, what to think on the ice; he was ready to play in the NHL from a physical and mental standpoint before he ever stepped on the ice for his first NHL practice.
“Honestly; they’re just different players in different worlds,” said one scout. “It’s really hard to say one is better than the other; right now it’s not fair. Different styles, different positions; expectations are totally different on the teams, one guy is almost a year younger.
“Three years from now they’re both going to be very important players on their team. I love them both and would pick either one of them. I think they’re both going to be great players, but these kids are still several years away from their prime.”
Kotkaniemi looked like Bambi on ice when he joined the NHL as an 18-year-old. Look at fellow Finn Teuvo Teravainen – he was 22 before he was strong enough to start handling NHL size and strength.
I like to use Alexander Barkov as a barometer for Kotkaniemi’s development – another Finnish center taken top three in the draft who didn’t see a breakthrough at the NHL level until he hit his 20’s. Barkov is physically more mature than KK at 20, and for that reason, along with being handed a top-line role and a fellow top-three pick in Huberdeau as a linemate, Barkov produced at a higher rate early on than KK has so far.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Kotkaniemi will be as good as Barkov, who is one of the top centers in the league. What I am saying is that one of the NHL’s premier pivots took several years to fully adjust and be confident enough to excel in the world’s best hockey league after coming over from Finland.
All of these “excuses” do little to appease Habs’ fans today. Sports fans tend to live in the moment… “What have you done for me lately?”, and they see Tkachuk outperform Kotkaniemi in their head-to-head matchups.
“I think he plays his best versus Montreal probably because KK went ahead of him,” noted one scout half in jest, but there may be something to that. Tkachuk has certainly had some of his best pro games versus the Canadiens, and you wonder if there isn’t extra motivation.
In the past two seasons, he has scored five goals in eight games against Montreal, which would be better than a 50-goal per season pace if he was that prolific versus everybody. Tkachuk’s career pace thus far is 25 goals per season, so statistically at least, he’s twice as good, and that doesn’t help Kotkaniemi’s case after a game in which Tkachuk outplayed him.
When it comes to future growth as an NHL player, Kotkaniemi certainly looks like he will be the better skater down the road, just as he is today. He already covers more ground and has a longer stride than the bulky Ottawa winger.
“Tkachuk skating flaw is hidden by the way he plays,” said one scout. “Ever see him backcheck?”
Leave it to a scout to talk about a player’s play away from the puck. I cannot say that I’ve spent a pile of time studying Tkachuk’s defensive game at the NHL level, but he certainly isn’t an above-average skater by any means. He also doesn’t need to be with the style he plays. Tkachuk is -26 for his career so far, Kotkaniemi in a third-line center role since his first game at the NHL level is -2.
As stats gurus like to point out, plus/minus is an old-style gauge of how well a player is performing defensively, and it doesn’t take into account linemates and the strength of a team to any great extent. Ottawa hasn’t had a great team in Tkachuk’s time in the league, but neither has Montreal for that matter. Tkachuk has faced better lines one may argue…but then again, playing a top-six role? Presumably, he has had better linemates as well.
There are no advanced stats that properly measure a hockey players’ defensive game; not yet at least. So far…Kotkaniemi has had a better CORSI than Tkachuk, averaging a career CF% of 56.2% compared to Tkachuk’s 51.3%. It should be noted that Tkachuk is improving his CORSI as he gains NHL experience – his CF% so far this season is 57.2% while Kotkaniemi’s is top 20 in the league among players who have played at least ten games at 57.9%.
There has been no comparison so far when it comes to offensive stats, and that’s why for many it is difficult to argue that Kotkaniemi was a better pick. Tkachuk has scored twice as many points as Kotkaniemi, but he has also played 30 more games and four minutes more per game on average. That gap will likely close as time goes along.
“You can’t really compare the two players,” noted one scout. “Ottawa’s got a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants bunch of young guys. They just want to go out there and play, score goals and not necessarily keep the other team off the scoreboard, so they’ve got no pressure.
“Tkachuk can do anything, and he’s fine. He doesn’t have to worry about getting less ice time. He had four turnovers the game he scored two goals against Montreal. Like…bad turnovers that should have ended up in the Senators’ net. It’s just a different mindset on how things should be done.
“They’re just happy that they’re entertaining right now I think. The structure’s not very good there. Tkachuk could be….I know that he can be better defensively, but I’m not saying his job is to be a defensive player.”
This is true. When one looks back on Tkachuk’s career, it won’t be in reverence to his defensive prowess. Fans won’t be saying: “Remember that shot block in the 2028 division finals?”
Tkachuk is going to be an impactful top-six winger who scores plenty of goals and keeps the opposition honest. He’s going to make opponents think twice about taking a run at prized young prospects such as Tim Stutzle, much like he did in Ottawa’s last game against Montreal when he fought Ben Chiarot, who had hit Stutzle in an earlier game with what Senators’ players deemed to be some “malicious intent”.
It is that physical edge that, for many, gives him an advantage when it comes to comparing the two young players and their value to their teams even if Kotkaniemi eventually puts up similar numbers.
“Kotkaniemi is probably more skilled,” said one scout. “When he’s not scoring, sometimes he’s not picking it up in other places, some other ways.
“Tkachuk is going to score; he’s the net-front guy, he’s in traffic. When he’s not scoring though, he’s still hard to play against. If he’s not scoring he’s still a useful guy because the other team still doesn’t like playing against him. Kotkaniemi is more skilled I think, and I don’t think he’s quite as strong as Tkachuk yet, and he doesn’t get the ice time that Tkachuk gets.”
That viewpoint is at least debatable. Granted, Kotkaniemi isn’t going to be the same pain in the ass that Tkachuk is, and he’s not going to be as eager to drop the gloves, but he’s not easy to play against, either. He forechecks hard and completes his checks, and once he gets stronger, you will see that his physical play will be a major part of his game. Being a center, he is also asked to play a more complete game, and all indications are that within a couple of years he is going to be a solid, two-way centerman.
“A center has to play 200 feet and be responsible in all three zones,” noted a scout. “It takes great stamina to do so and lots of learning. Wingers mistakes can be easily hidden…not so for a center or dman or goalie.”
It’s another reason why Tkachuk has been given a top-six role pretty much from Day One in Ottawa, while Kotkaniemi has yet to play above a third-line role. More responsibility…more to learn.
“I kind of thought he’d be jumping out this year, and he’s kind of sputtered,” said one NHL scout. “I don’t know if it’s something to do with coaching, but it seems like his development’s been slowed a bit. (Former coach) Claude (Julien) likes the safe players.”
It looks like Kotkaniemi is going to be more of a playmaker than a goalscorer, and the opposite can be said of Tkachuk. They are certainly not easy players to compare.
“Kotkaniemi is going to have the puck on the power play; he’s going to be setting up on the half wall or wherever; while Brady’s going to be a goal line down. He’s a net-front guy, so it’s different. They’re different.”
While his statistics have yet to show it, aside from his four goals in the playoffs, Kotkaniemi has goal-scoring potential if and when he finds the time and space to shoot.
“I think Kotkaniemi’s going to score,” said the scout. “I think he shoots the puck extremely well, and I think it will get better. He needs to get opportunity and create a confidence level. I think he had it in the playoffs, and I just don’t think he has it right now. I think it was really coming, and it’s stagnated right now.”
There are no such worries with Tkachuk. There has been no stagnation – he is Ottawa’s best forward on many nights, and you won’t find many fans wishing they had drafted someone else.
“Tkachuck has no fear out there,” said one scout. “His confidence level is through the roof. And that’s what Kotkaniemi was in the playoffs last year – he was running guys and had a ‘fuck you attitude’, and now you don’t see that in his game, so something’s happened. One mistake and you’re sitting, or you’re not getting the same opportunity.”
Tkachuk definitely has an advantage so far. If you were drafting today and there was no need at center, he would be chosen ahead of Kotkaniemi as you know for sure what you are getting.
To say with full certainty today that the Canadiens took the wrong player, and will regret the decision when it’s all said and done? That is still a hasty statement. Some very knowledgeable hockey people whose opinions I trust still think Kotkaniemi is going to be a solid all-around top-two center, and the value of those players cannot be understated. I happen to agree with their viewpoints.
You see glimpses of the potential every few games, and need to remind yourself that he is still only 20 years old:
Let’s revisit this debate in three years’ time. If Kotkaniemi is still lagging behind, it will be a lot safer to proclaim that the Senators got the better player. Until that time – it’s TBD. Round 1 to the Sens – several more to go.
I wonder if Montreal could’ve dropped down a few spots and still picked KK?