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19th of October 2018

Canada



In the Habs' Room: Jesperi Kotkaniemi fits nicely as No. 1 centre in win over Sens

First-round draft pick keeps getting better at training camp and shines at centre between Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia in win over Ottawa.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi isn’t making things easy for Canadiens management.

The general thinking coming into training camp was that the 18-year-old centre — who was selected with the third overall pick at this year’s NHL Draft — would get his feet wet during some preseason games on the smaller North American rink before returning for a second season with Assat Pori in the Finnish Elite League.

During his first game in a Canadiens uniform at the NHL Rookie Showdown in Laval, Kotkaniemi looked lost at times in a 4-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators. It was only the fourth game Kotkaniemi had ever played on a North American rink.

But the Finnish kid is obviously a quick learner and looked anything but lost skating on the Canadiens’ No. 1 line Saturday night between Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia in a 3-2 preseason win over the Senators at the Bell Centre. Kotkaniemi was named the game’s first star despite going pointless. He did hit two posts in the first period.

“We don’t have a friendship yet,” Kotkaniemi said about the goalposts after the game with a big smile and a laugh. “The only thing I can say is I hate those posts.”

There was nothing to hate about Kotaniemi’s game Saturday night as he logged 16:19 of ice time and looked very comfortable on the smaller rink. He wasn’t afraid to try some risky passes, whether it be back to the point in the offensive zone or on a breakout from his own zone, which is a good sign of confidence. He also worked hard every shift.

“I like his involvement,” coach Claude Julien said. “Pucks are in the corner of the rink or on the walls, he’s getting in there. There’s no hesitation. He’s not afraid to battle and his work ethic is good. Not just up the ice, but coming back as well. There’s a lot of good things for an 18-year-old. I’m going to call him a kid, an 18-year-old kid, there’s a lot of really good things that I’m seeing from him. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll have a long NHL career and a good one as well.”

But when will that NHL career begin?

Julien said after the game that the Canadiens are continuing to evaluate Kotkaniemi and are seeing good things. The coach added they will wait until the end of training camp before deciding if he’s ready to play in the NHL now or needs to continue growing in another environment.

While Assat Pori is believed to have a deal with the Canadiens that Kotkaniemi must return to Finland if he doesn’t stick in the NHL, the 18-year-old didn’t rule out the possibility of playing for the AHL’s Laval Rocket. Deals, of course, can sometimes be renegotiated.

“It’s hard to say,” Kotkaniemi said after the game when asked if he could play for the Rocket. “I just go day-by-day and let’s see what happens.”

As far as the possibility of starting the season with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi said: “I haven’t thought anything yet. I go by day-by-day.”

The thing is, every day the kid is getting better.

“The difference is pretty big,” Kotkaniemi said when reminded about his first game at the NHL Rookie Showdown. “I’ve been here a while, so everything is a little bit easier now. I think the biggest thing is that I’m used to that rink. I think that was the biggest difference to me. I think I know a little bit now those boards and stuff like that. It’s easier every day.”

If Kotkaniemi doesn’t start this season in the NHL, playing on the smaller rink in Laval would seem like the best thing for his development at this point, but time will tell.

Kotkaniemi took Max Domi’s spot at centre Saturday night between Drouin and Armia. With Domi suspended for the remainder of the preseason for a sucker-punch on Florida Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad, it’s certainly not the last time we’ll see of Kotkaniemi on the No. 1 line during this preseason.

“That was unbelievable,” Kotkaniemi said about his new linemates. “I’ve never been with guys who are (such) skilled players, so it was very easy to me.”

Drouin was impressed by the 18-year-old.

“The way he played the game, the way he was skating, he was calm with the puck,” Drouin said about Kotkaniemi. “He wasn’t rushing plays, he wasn’t getting rid of the puck. That’s something you get excited to see as a young kid to have that poise, to have that composure to play the game at such a level. It’s his first couple of weeks in North America, too, so I expect him to get even better.”

That would make the Canadiens’ decision even more difficult.

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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