ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA — For decades, Habs fans have been jealously looking to teams that had a wealth of centers and wondering when they might finally see players of the same quality? Is that time on the horizon?
For all of his flaws, Marc Bergevin may have finally addressed the primary issue he was hired to solve. Whether he was forced or got lucky, the current crop of centers were all acquired during the tenure of his management team.
The move to adding centers started at the 2016 trade deadline when Bergevin was able to turn Dale Weise and Tomas Fleichman into Phillip Danault. In 2018, Bergevin traded Alex Galchenuyk for Max Domi followed by Max Pacioretty for Nick Suzuki. All three deals have been hailed as excellent work on his part.
In the last four drafts, Bergevin has lifted the road blocks and has allowed Trevor Timmins and his scouts to do their work unimpeded. Timmins and company have drafted Ryan Poehling, Joni Ikonen, Cam Hillis, Lukas Vejdemo, Jacob Olofsson and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
These centers all hold varying levels of potential. Poehling looks to have a ceiling of a second line pivot while the remainder are seen as third line centers. Some are offensively gifted, others have a defensive focus. But the one that holds the most promise, and therefore the most pressure, is Kotkaniemi.
Fans love to see young players on the team but also demand a winning team. While the Canadiens have drafted well, and in some cases have developed players, transitioning them to the NHL continues to be a problem. Young players will make mistakes that may affect the outcomes of games. These growing pains are opportunities to learn but ones that the coaching staff has be reluctant to embrace.
As a former third overall pick, Kotkaniemi has the added pressure of being the team’s future top line center. Inevitably whenever he struggles, some in the fanbase will begin to compare him to any other player selected that year who is currently doing well. Hopefully he can impact a game similarly to Jonathan Toews with quality two-way play while contributing offensively. The young center likes to emulate his fellow Finnish national Alexander Barkov.
Kotkaniemi had an excellent rookie campaign. While he wasn’t in the running for the Calder trophy, he did provide the Canadiens with a mature two-way style that was ahead of expectations for his age. While his 34 points were a good start to his career, it was his 57 percent Corsi for Average that pointed to a player with potential. On the other hand, his faceoff success rate was subpar at 46.7 percent and he was sheltered on the road, resulting in zero goals on the road.
While many contend that Claude Julien doesn’t do well developing youth, he did his best to protect the young center. Kotkaniemi was line-matched as much as possible getting and received 61 percent of starts in the offensive zone.
This season, fans expected him to continue his development progress. However, Kotkaniemi was hampered by a groin injury that sidelined him. That injury clearly slowed him down. His luck seemed to have changed and he was trending upwards again, until he suffered another injury, this time a concussion, the result of a hit he sustained versus Colorado.
Another factor in the dip in effectiveness for him is his usage by Julien. Kotkaniemi is not being sheltered as much as last season. He is facing better competition while on the road and is being given less offensive zone starts. Kotkaniemi has scored his only two goals so far this season while on the road.
With an increase in his defensive zone starts, his faceoff success rate has diminished. His Corsi numbers have also been affected by facing tougher competition.
The chorus of voices wanting Kotkaniemi sent down to the AHL to “play top line minutes” don’t take into account the difficulties of playing at that level.
The AHL is not an easy league filled with veteran professionals who know how to grind a game down. It is a league that relies heavily on defensive hockey. The top 12 goalies in the AHL (who have played 10 games or more) all have save percentages above .920. Scoring in the AHL is not an easy task, even for highly talented youngsters.
An issue specific to Laval is also the method that coach Joel Bouchard uses in his approach to player development. He likes that the new arrivals or young players go to the back of the bus and have to earn their ice time and situational play.
Even if Kotkaniemi were sent down, he would then face the challenge of playing his way up the lineup, an issue he is already facing in Montreal while averaging about 13 minutes per game. It should not be expected that he get to play more in Laval immediately.
The answer to a struggling 19-year-old is not always a demotion. In the case of Kotkaniemi, it is a case of letting him play in his current role and living with the errors and inconsistencies. It would also help him to be given some added duties such as the power-play, an area that can help build his confidence offensively.
Those questioning Kotkaniemi’s play also make a point to ask, “But Suzuki has less experience in the NHL, why is he doing so well?” While Suzuki is starting to look comfortable in a top six role, and even showed good things when given the role as a second line center, he too has had difficulties.
Suzuki is in the top five in NHL rookie scoring after the first quarter of the season. He also boasts a solid 53.6 percent Corsi For rating and a solid 49 percent at the faceoff circle. However, fans need only look back to the overtime period versus Ottawa where he lost his coverage of Brady Tkachuk, and a lost point for the Canadiens.
But fans forget that Suzuki is a full year older than Kotkaniemi. That means Suzuki has had two full seasons to develop since his draft year, while Kotkaniemi stepped right into the NHL. This is a big adjustment, especially for younger players.
Developing in the CHL was advantageous for Suzuki as he was able to mature physically and work on his game. This was the path chosen for him after each of his first two pro camps when management in Vegas and Montreal felt he needed more seasoning.
Rather than being returned to Finland, the Canadiens chose to keep Kotkaniemi in the NHL allowing him to play in a lesser role. The issue of Kotkaniemi’s development now lies in Julien’s hands as he incrementally adds degrees of difficulty to his path.
Some fans may not like seeing Claude Julien at the helm of this development for such a key position. They may even believe he is not good for the youngsters. Patience will be key for the coach and fans as this incremental approach plays out. Julien has adjusted his system, but will also have to adjust his approach towards the youth.
By Blain Potvin, Staff Writer. Edited by Cate Racher.
All Habs Hockey Magazine
Copyright © 2019 Rocket Sports