Jesperi Kotkaniemi hasn’t had the pleasure of meeting fellow countryman Saku Koivu, but he’s hoping to make his mark with the Canadiens just like the former captain did during his tenure with Montreal.
“I hope someday I will be as good as him,” said Kotkaniemi, shortly after the being selected third overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft on Friday evening at American Airlines Center. “That’s my mission.”
Kotkaniemi has a long way to go, of course, but the 17-year-old Finnish centerman is fully prepared to put in the work necessary to reach his NHL goals.
He’s off to a great start coming off a stellar rookie campaign with Ässät in the Finnish Elite League this past season, registering 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games. That ranked him third on the roster in scoring.
“I’m mostly a playmaker, I think. I love to find some passing lanes. That’s my thing,” explained the Pori native, who played on the wing with the Finnish side due to the number of veteran pivots on the roster. “I also have a good shot. I need to use it a little bit more, I think. I’m a big guy. I love to go in the corners and battle hard.”
With Ässät, Kotkaniemi has been learning the intricacies of the game under the tutelage of his father, Mikael, a former player and long-time bench boss in Finland.
“Of course, that’s helped a lot. I get good advice every day,” said Kotkaniemi, who confirmed that he is under contract for two more seasons overseas. “That’s a big thing to me.”
His strong production in the SM-liiga likely isn’t the only thing that boosted his stock in the eyes of the Canadiens’ brass, though, after being ranked sixth amongst European skaters, according to NHL Central Scouting, heading into the event. Putting up good numbers at the 2018 IIHF World U18 Championship undoubtedly helped, too.
“Winning gold, I think that’s a really cool thing. I think if the team plays well, players are better,” affirmed Kotkaniemi, who scored three goals and collected nine points in seven games to help Finland finish atop the podium. “Winning gold, I think that was the big thing.”
As for when he’ll be NHL ready, Kotkaniemi isn’t making any projections. He’s just eager to soak in the moment and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience with his family.
“I just go day by day… I think I’m the cool guy. I don’t feel the pressure that much,” said Kotkaniemi, who will celebrate his 18th birthday on July 6th. “I heard they were looking for centers, so I hoped they would choose me – and they did. I’m so excited.”