This has been a learning year for Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
He has learned that it is not going to come easy for him, and that he will need to work harder to reach the next level physically in the NHL.
There is also the process of maturity. Budding stars placed under the intense Montreal microscope of expectations haven’t always handled it adeptly in their first two or three seasons.
You can name a lot of NHL skaters who were NHL superstars before the age 22 – Orr, Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Savard, Yzerman, Lemieux, Crosby, McDavid, Makar etc.; the list is pretty long. Despite their storied history….you cannot put many, if any, Habs forwards or defencemen on that list without argument.
Montreal-native Rocket Richard was 22 before he was playing a significant scoring role on the Canadiens. Management was concerned that he was injury prone and a bit soft up until that time. Were they ever glad they were wrong.
Guy Lafleur was expected to come into Montreal and be a 40-goal scorer from Day 1. It took him until his fourth season to adjust to the pressure and expectations of being the next anointed Quebecois superstar. Indeed – the Flower didn’t bloom under the glaring heat lamps until his lid (helmet) was removed and he fully embraced the rays of sunshine.
The back of Lafleur’s O-PEE-CHEE rookie card stated matter-of-factly that “Guy will be a superstar”, printed before he ever played an NHL game. It was all too much at first for “Le Demon Blond”, even in an era when drafted players were 19 and 20 years of age as opposed to today when they are 17 and 18. Lafleur had to adjust to the pressure, the physical play, his play away from the puck, and the many distractions that come with being the center of attention in North America’s largest francophone city.
Doug Wickenheiser was thought to be a generational talent when Montreal chose him first overall in the 1980 draft, and with good reason. Wickenheiser, to this day, is still regarded by many as the best prospect to ever come out of the WHL. He had it all, and his on-ice accomplishments before the age of 18 were staggering.
Montreal GM Irv Grundman and his scouting staff would be denigrated in later years for passing on homegrown star Denis Savard to choose the Regina Pats center, but there was not a single club in the league that would have passed on Wickenheiser.
What happened to Wickenheiser was that a small-town prairie boy, who was accustomed to being the best at every sport he ever played, got thrown into the Montreal fishbowl and was given no special treatment whatsoever. In fact; Wickenheiser started his rookie season sitting in the press box, and he would quickly lose his confidence and self esteem as it was drilled into him that all that mattered was the team; he was just another number.
Wickenheiser turned to Montreal’s notorious nightlife for solace, and while it may have allowed him to mentally escape the madness on a temporary basis most nights, that and his lack of playing time ultimately led to the stagnation of his physical skills at a time when he should have only been getting better.
That elite self confidence that every top-level athlete possesses instead became self doubt, and Wickenheiser was never able to regain that mental edge that had made him special.
Fast forward to 2019, and the Kurious Kase of Kotkaniemi offers a much different scenario. ‘Sweet Baby Eagle’ did not begin his career underachieving and failing to meet expectations; in fact it was quite the opposite in that regard.
Kotkaniemi surprised everyone and became Montreal’s first rookie to play a full season before the age of 19 since Mario Tremblay in 1974. His 34 points as an 18-year-old place him 46th overall in NHL history, and the second-best total in Canadiens history behind Tremblay.
The rookie Finn with the infectious smile was embraced by fans and media alike, and expectations rose exponentially for his second NHL season.
Discernably different from Wick, The Flower and The Rocket in that regard, and in fact, closer to Guillaume Latendresse in terms of fulfilling early expectations.
Much like Kotkaniemi, Latendresse had a solid training camp at 18 years of age, and many wondered if he may even make the team. He repeated that the following training camp, and the club had little choice but to keep him in the NHL even if his best option was to play another year of junior. Fans and media alike were not going to allow it; they had their “Next French Hope”.
Latendresse was idolized and embraced. He began believing the press clippings, and it is safe to say that the adulation went to his head. Latendresse needed to keep working diligently on his skating and fitness to reach the next level and be an impact NHLer, but if you read what the press was saying, all he had to do pre game was eat two Bell Center hot dogs, smoke a dart and lace up his skates.
As one NHL scouts noted to me a few years ago, “King” Latendresse’s head became too big to fit through the dressing room door….but can you fully blame him?
Imagine being an idolized and fawned-over teenager in North America’s cosmopolitan city. Everywhere he went it was rock star status…Latsmania was a very real thing, and it was too much too soon.
Well – it is hard not to imagine that a similar thing has happened with Kotkaniemi.
He was the new Golden Child….the answer to Montreal’s longstanding woes at center, and it is fair to say that he expected things to be relatively seamless in his second NHL season after adding ten pounds in the offseason of what was assumed to be muscle.
Unlike the previous summer, Kotkaniemi spent little time on the ice, and one wonders if that was the right decision. He did not look to be any faster or sturdier on his skates…was all of the muscle he added to his upper body? Did he work sufficently on his VO2 and endurance levels? It would appear that he did not.
The positive in all of this is that he is not getting full roasted on social media, or by the local media…yet. Fans in this city know he is just a teenager, and that his best years are ahead of him.
It’s also a life lesson for Kotkaniemi not to take things for granted in the best league on the planet. Things came easily for Bobby Orr and Mario…for everyone else, even Gretzky, hard work is what made them superstars.
Kotkaniemi will need to keep working on his quickness, power and balance. An emphasis on packing on lean muscle and concentrating on the lower body will be paramount in the next couple of offseasons if he hopes to reach his untapped potential.
I have little doubt that he will do just that. By all accounts he has his head screwed on right. He has character and determination, he is highly coachable…he wants to get better.
You notice it when there are camera shots on the bench and he is being told something – he listens politely and nods. Alex Galchenyuk used to get a sour look on his face like he had just swallowed a lemon, and would argue. Galchenyuk never got better; that’s not going to be the case with Kotkaniemi.
Succeeding as a young player in the Montreal maelstrom is an arduous task. It was no walk in Lafontaine Park for Richard, Lafleur or Wickenheiser. Beliveau didn’t even attempt it – he waited until he was more than ready to accept the passing of the torch. Drouin looks to only now be flourishing under the intense scrutiny at the age of 24.
Kotkaniemi will seize the torch when he is ready to do so. Right now it is still a little hot – he will develop the requisite callouses to grasp it firmly and hold it high….fans just need to be patient.
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