It’s early on New Year’s Eve, and 32-year-old, 6-foot-1, 205-pound Dallas Stars winger Alexander Radulov is taking a healthy run at the NHL’s youngest player. We’re talking a bull’s rush from 15 feet away, giving Radulov just enough time to get up to full speed before delivering his check and potentially causing considerable harm to the wiry, 6-foot-2, 184-pound Finn who was drafted third overall by the Montreal Canadiens last June.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi knows the hit is coming, but he doesn’t flinch. He calmly moves the puck, glues himself to the boards, and uses Radulov’s momentum against him. Then the 18-year-old skates around the fallen Russian, quickly rejoins the play as the last Canadien up ice, and ends up getting a quality scoring chance on Stars goaltender Ben Bishop.
It’s another test passed for Kotkaniemi in a season that’s challenged him in ways he’s never been challenged before. It offers more evidence to support the bold decision that was made to start him with the Canadiens at the beginning of the season, the one to keep him with the club in December instead of sending him to the world junior championship, and the one to play him in that 40th game in Dallas, which officially makes this his first full season in the NHL and gets him a year closer to unrestricted free agency.
That Kotkaniemi was one of the best players on the ice for the Canadiens in their 3-2 overtime win over the Stars — that he’s been one of the team’s best players since training camp — says much about how he’s adjusted thus far. It also suggests he could be a key player for the team as it fights to maintain its tenuous grip on a playoff spot in the second half of the season.
“I feel like 2019 is going to be my year,” the kid said as he peeled off his equipment following Wednesday’s practice.
As if 2018 wasn’t the best of Kotkaniemi’s life. It was a year that saw him compete at Finland’s top level as a 17-year-old, one that saw him rise through the ranks before being drafted higher than most expected, and it was one that saw him graduate to the NHL immediately despite a very wobbly start in his first game at Canadiens rookie camp.
“I was lost,” Kotkaniemi said. “When I came here I didn’t know anything.”
“I’ve progressed a lot,” he said.
Steadily. Impressively, too.
Linemate Joel Armia says it’s been a great help to Kotkaniemi to have him and fellow Finns Artturi Lehkonen and Antti Niemi around to help him adjust. But he’s not taking any credit away from the youngster for how he’s found his place both in the room and on the ice.
“He’s a weird kid, a funny kid,” Armia said. “I like him a lot. He’s a very good player.”
It’s why Armia isn’t surprised at how Kotkaniemi has navigated successfully through a more demanding schedule than he’s ever been subjected to, how he’s managed 18 points and been the sixth-most productive rookie in the NHL despite playing less than 14 minutes per game, or how he appears to be getting better with each passing day.
Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher isn’t surprised, either.
“Whether he’s had a tough game or a tough shift, he’s been able to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “It’s probably been the one thing you’ve noticed most since training camp is his ability to adapt. That’s what you’re looking for in young players. He’s already at such a high level for an 18-year-old kid, but when he shows the potential to learn and get better as fast as he has, it’s exciting for our group.”
It’s exciting for Canadiens coach Claude Julien, too.
He sat down with Kotkaniemi on Wednesday to discuss the challenges that lie ahead — the competition tightening up, the games getting harder, the pace getting faster, and the threat of the schedule wearing him down — and he came away from the conversation with his belief in the player reinforced.
“I’m confident he’ll manage (the second half of the season) well,” Julien said. “I haven’t seen (Kotkaniemi) slow down, which sometimes you see with guys coming here for the first time from Europe or guys coming out of college, where they play weekend games. That first year with the schedule eventually catches up, but right now I see no signs of him slowing down.
“If he can sustain the pace of this game for the whole season, it’ll be a big feat for an 18-year-old. The rest of his game is improving. There’s areas, like even his faceoffs improved since the beginning of the year. So there’s different things. There’s giveaways, takeaways, learning to make stronger plays… I think that’s coming around. Those are things any 18-year-old should be learning at this stage.”
And if the lessons are well-absorbed, the points will follow.
Kotkaniemi would like to score more of them — he’s hit more posts over the last two weeks than all of his teammates combined — but he’s not sweating it.
Neither is Canadiens forward Jonathan Drouin.
“He’s a young guy,” the 23-year-old said. “You see how well he’s playing and how much he’s helping our team, you just gotta let him be. Help him with what he needs, but he’s playing the right way and going in the right direction. You don’t want to talk to him too much or anything.
“Let him do his own thing. He’s doing it well.”
Kotkaniemi scored nearly half a point per game, averaged nearly two shots on net per game, put up a 59 per cent Corsi For and made more jaw-dropping passes than any of his teammates through his first 40 NHL games. The sense that he’ll only get better as things move along is shared by himself and everyone around him.