Boston hockey fans got their first look at the latest Canadiens phenom forward during Montreal’s 3-0 victory over the Bruins on Saturday night at the Garden. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who almost looks old enough to be Les Glorieux’s stickboy, centered a line with Paul Byron and Joel Armia, who happened to grow up in Kotkaniemi’s hometown of Pori, Finland.
Hub hockey fans don’t get all that excited about the next big deal in the Habs’ lineup. They know the drill after all these decades. From a Boston perspective, Canadiens success has been a giant pain in le derriere.
The names have been many, some glorious. Rocket Richard. Jean Beliveau. Guy Lafleur. Even Stephane Richer and Saku Koivu. All forwards, all with distinctive style, charisma, and impact, and a boatload of goals — 2,287 to be exact, though not all were scored in a Habs sweater. It only felt that way.
Kotkaniemi, the No. 3 overall pick in last June’s draft, is only 18 years old. His stop at the Garden was the 10th game of his career, which means the Habs won’t be likely to send him back to add size and seasoning in Europe. With No. 10 in the books, they’re officially on the hook for his first full year’s salary (potentially $3.425 million), a sum they’ll be only too happy to pay if, as things are beginning to look, he turns into the real deal.
But again . . . 18. It doesn’t have to be almost Halloween to be reminded that teenagers are typically trick or treat in the NHL. Of the aforementioned Habs forwards, the youngest in his rookie season was Richer, only 19 in 1985. Lafleur was 20 in 1971, and ditto for Koivu in 1995. Richard came aboard at 21 in 1942, in the thick of the war years. And the much-ballyhooed Beliveau, a Quebec legend before he finally took on full-time NHL work with the 1953-54 Canadiens, was a wise, old 22.
So let us not get too carried away yet with the ruddy-faced Kotkaniemi, whose mom just recently flew in from Finland to live with him during his transition to the new world. He arrived in Boston with a line of 0-4—4, and a debt of gratitude that he can escape the craziness that is Montreal hockey and be home with family on a nightly basis.
“A good thing,” he said with a wide smile.
“I get good food every day and it’s nice to come home when she is there.”
So fresh is Kotkaniemi to his new environment that he sounded completely unaware — or perhaps naïve? — when he was asked after the morning workout on Causeway Street what he knew about the age-old Boston-Montreal rivalry.
“No, no,” said Kotkaniemi, asked if his teammates had made him aware of the rivalry. “Not much.”
In the immediate, it looks as if the 6-foot-2-inch Kotkaniemi will have to add some weight and muscle before we truly are able to project just what his impact will be on the Habs. He is slight, only 185 pounds, and still getting the hang of playing in the most skilled men’s league on the planet. He has yet to score, and like many first-year pivots, he was schooled at the faceoff dot (33 wins, 49 losses, 40.2 percent win rate) in his first nine games.
But this really isn’t about the immediate for Kotkaniemi. It’s about where he’s headed, how he literally grows into that CH sweater. He is a fine raw talent, with a silken skating stride (think: Vincent Lecavalier) and hands to match, and while most of the aforementioned Canadiens forwards made an instant impact upon their arrivals, the Habs are looking at his first year as on-the-job training.
All of which should sound familiar to Bruins fans.
“As a comparison, I see a lot of David Pastrnak in him,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who was still the bench boss in Boston when Pastrnak debuted in 2014, following a 24-game primer in AHL Providence.
“You know, a young player with so much talent, and basically with time and with experience, and learning the little details of the game, he’s only going to get better. So a very similar situation. For an 18-year-old, I think he’s done a really good job and has been impressive since he came for training camp . . . he’s made huge strides.”
With the new season not even a month along, Kotkaniemi is one of but six 2018 draftees (from a class of 217) to play at least one NHL game. The vast majority of that class, true of all drafts, will never play even one game.
No. 1 Rasmus Dahlin is getting full-time work on the Buffalo back line. No. 2 Andrei Svechnikov has been a fairly seamless fit at forward in Carolina (where the Bruins play on Tuesday). No. 4 Brady Tkachuk made a big splash (3-3—6) in his first four games with Ottawa before he suffered a leg injury.
Kotkaniemi has been able to stick with the Habs, in part, because they plummeted in the standings last season, finishing No. 28 overall with 71 points. They also dished captain/forward Max Pacioretty to Vegas at the start of training camp.
The combination of Kotkaniemi’s pedigree and Montreal’s futility made for a perfect career starting point, not unlike the circumstances in Boston some 15 years ago when a far less ballyhooed Patrice Bergeron arrived on Causeway Street at 18.
Bergeron was a couple of years into his NHL career when Julien arrived as coach in the summer of 2007. Both Kotkaniemi and Bergeron are centers. Perhaps Julien sees a comparison?
“Oh, I don’t know, I’d say it’s way too early,” said Julien, “because Bergy is a pretty exceptional player. Not too many people reach that standard, so I’ll stick with Pasta for now.”
Pastrnak, now making $6.7 million per season, has blossomed into one of the game’s biggest scoring threats. The path has just begun for Kotkaniemi. If that’s where it leads, there will be many more visits to Boston, and time to consider where his name fits on a list of Habs we know all too well.