Straightening up his turtleneck, Don Waddell made the call to the central registry. In front of him a one-year, $6,100,035 contract with the name, “Jesperi Kotkaniemi,” signed on the dotted line.
One week later, after days of radio silence out of Montreal, the deal went unmatched.
The offer sheet was successful and Kotkaniemi was now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Bottles popped and cheers of jubilation rang out.
So, back to reality, what happens now? What kind of player is Kotkaniemi and where in the lineup can we expect him to slot in? Let’s try to answer some of those questions.
Despite a steep dive in production — 5 goals and 20 points in 56 games last season— Kotkaniemi still has so much room for growth at just 21 years of age.
His defensive numbers have been very good for a young player and he had some of the strongest possession and generation analytics among Montreal forwards last season.
The talent is there, it just needs to get put back on the right track, and Carolina can help him reach his potential with the proper development and deployment.
There are three potential landing spots for Kotkaniemi in the lineup, and none of them are going to involve his natural position of center.
Don Waddell echoed a similar sentiment in his presser last Saturday, stating that Kotkaniemi would more than likely start at left wing.
And honestly? That’s for the best.
Because the Hurricanes know that playing center in the NHL is one of the hardest positions to master. Being a center at the NHL level is a completely different animal than any other level of play before it and one that you need the proper development in before making that leap, barring special occasions.
Because of the rushed nature of his development in Montreal — anytime an undersized, 18 year old is thrown right into the NHL, he’s being rushed — and the fact that the Canes have four great centers down the middle already, it would be for the best for Kotkaniemi to get some solid playing time, learning what you need to be a successful NHL player and build confidence and creativity, at wing before jumping back to the center position.
And there is still an opportunity to get some time at center if injuries strike down the middle.
So where should Kotkaniemi slot in? Here are the three most likely options:
What’s better than two Finnish stars on one line? How about three?
Now Kotkaniemi is by no means a star nor is there any guarantee that he’ll be able to blossom on a line with the two premier offensive talents of Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen, but he has the smarts and pedigree to be something more than he has been so far.
Kotkaniemi is a talented playmaker who can create chances both off the rush and on the forecheck.
Playing alongside two of Carolina’s best offensive talents would obviously help anybody’s numbers and the reduced burden of not being the main cog would allow him to be a bit more open in his play.
The line would also feature two strong two-way forwards with both him and Teravainen being great defensively.
The major worry though, would be the fact that Kotkaniemi is more of a perimeter player for offensive generation which would leave just Aho as the primary play driver and inside threat.
The Canes would be better off sticking with the offensive juggernaut that is the SAT line with another interior play driver like Andrei Svechnikov playing alongside the talented Finns, but it’s an option regardless.
So perhaps where Kotkaniemi could see the most growth would be alongside Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas on the Canes’ second line.
Kotkaniemi can provide a defensive boost on a line that has had its struggles with chances against and his transition and cycle skills would be a perfect complement for an offensively aggressive line mate like Trocheck or springing a speedster like Necas.
There is also the fact that with Trocheck being an impending free agent, the Canes may want to see if Kotkaniemi can be a potential replacement as a 2C, so it is imperative that he try to get his offense back on track as well as see if there is any potential chemistry with Necas.
With two talented offensive players alongside him that can create chances as well, Kotkaniemi could see an uptick in production and help build back up his confidence.
An area of concern was that Kotkaniemi, while generating chances, wasn’t generating high enough quality chances with his playmaking. Having dynamic linemates like Trocheck and Necas may see a better trend towards higher-danger shot generation.
If the Canes, on the other hand, are expecting Kotkaniemi to become a defensive, shutdown centerman, who better to learn alongside than Jordan Staal?
Giving Kotkaniemi playing time alongside Staal and Jesper Fast can do wonders for his defensive development which is already the strongest part of his game.
Kotkaniemi has strong defensive awareness and is already responsible in his own zone, which may make it easier to gain the trust of the coaching staff to give the green light to get more creative on the offensive side.
And with Staal and Fast behind him, he can have more comfort in making mistakes which has been one of the areas of concern with Kotkaniemi.
Making the simple and safe play rather than trying to generate something more from a chance is seeing Kotkaniemi’s offense stall out, so less responsibility may be the perfect thing he needs to rebuild his confidence.
Outside of 5v5 play, Kotkaniemi should also be getting the chance to expand his role within Carolina’s special teams.
One of the areas that Kotkaniemi can see a real boost in his utilization is on the penalty kill.
Despite being one of the Montreal’s best players at zone exits, on top of his strong defensive metrics, Kotkaniemi was surprisingly never used on the penalty kill.
Kotkaniemi could be a good partner for Necas — who proved to be a very effective PKer last season — providing both strong defensive play as well as the opportunity to transition play the other way given the opportunity.
Kotkanimei should also get a solid look on the other side of special teams.
Kotkaniemi is, by nature, a playmaker. The success of most power plays is predicated on puck movement and he can bring that.
If PP1 has two talented puck movers like Teravainen and Svechnikov on each circle, the Canes can see that same strategy replicated with Necas and Kotkaniemi on PP2. Alongside net-front guys like Niederreiter or Stepan, there is a real chance that the Canes second unit can see a huge upswing in effectiveness if Kotkaniemi can get back to form.
The most important thing for Kotkaniemi though, is to have stable linemates. In Montreal, the most time Kotkaniemi got with a single line was 84 minutes of 5v5 ice time — despite playing in 56 games — and he played 20+ minutes with eight different line combinations throughout the season.
He has seen success as a two-way forward, but seems to have plateaued his offense. Lessening his burden of responsibilities and providing him with stable linemates and there being less of a fear of losing time due to mistakes should be just what Kotkaniemi needs to get back on track in his development and become an integral piece in Carolina.