Jesperi Kotkaniemi felt he got better every day as he progressed through the Montreal Canadiens prospect tournament.
Selected by the Canadiens with the No. 3 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old native of Pori, Finland, played center in both of Montreal’s 2018 Rookie Showdown games at Place Bell this weekend, a 4-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Friday, and a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday.
Next for Kotkaniemi is Canadiens camp, which begins Thursday. He put off contemplating his chances of making his NHL debut next month.
“Of course I think that’s one opportunity but I haven’t played any games with the men so it’s hard to say,” Kotkaniemi said Sunday.
If Kotkaniemi does not make the NHL roster he might return to Finland to play his second Liiga season for Assat, where he would be coached by his father, Mikael, a former Liiga player. He could also play with Laval of the American Hockey League for coach Joel Bouchard, who ran Canadiens rookie camp.
Kotkaniemi’s feel for the game was on display in the third period Sunday. As he approached the blue line along the left side, he sent a soft pass to T.J. Melancon, who scored for a 2-2 tie.
“I’m proud of him today, the way he responded,” Bouchard said. “He showed character. You saw him in the third period, the times he got back in the battles, he got back into the game, that he recovered loose pucks that he won, compared to the last game. He was more invested, more involved, and he knew it.”
Kotkaniemi wasn’t overly pleased with his first game. He threw a solid check on Senators forward prospect Brady Tkachuk, but Tkachuk, selected by Ottawa with the No. 4 pick, recovered the puck and scored the first of his two goals.
“If you’re telling me that he said, ‘Yeah, you know I struggled a bit in some parts of my game,’ that’s great,” Bouchard said Friday. “So when a guy’s aware of the way he plays we’re heading in the right direction. The guy’s got dazzle, he’s got length, he feels the game, so when you feel the game it takes a little time.”
With the two games at rookie camp, Kotkaniemi has nearly matched his previous experience playing on the smaller dimensions of North American hockey rinks.
The 6-foot-2, 184-pound forward had played three games on the smaller ice surface, which leads to a more dynamic game than he is accustomed to playing at home on the larger international hockey rink.
“I don’t get that many pucks in the bigger rink,” Kotkaniemi said. “The game is so much faster. We are going end to end all the time so it’s a faster game here.”
Kotkaniemi played on the wing for Assat last season when he scored 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games as a 17-year-old playing against older players. But he was selected by the Canadiens for his potential as a top-line center.
“He can play hockey, that’s for sure,” Bouchard said. “You don’t get drafted third overall if you’re hiding and you’re something that nobody saw. Everybody agrees he’s a good hockey player, but he’s a young kid like all the young players that are drafted. Even if they’re drafted earlier, they’re still in the process of becoming a hockey player. And becoming a really good NHL hockey player, it takes time and it takes experience.”