While surprise probably isn’t the correct word, the Montreal Canadiens announced that head coach Claude Julien confirmed that 18-year-old prospect Jesperi Kotkaniemi will start the season in Montreal. No word on where he might play or even what position he might play out of the gate.
“We decided that he’ll start the season here in Montreal. It’s good news for him, and it’s good news for us,” said Julien.
The 2018 third-overall pick has been debated for weeks now about whether or not he should remain with the team. While the team is desperate for help down the middle, Kotkaniemi has not played center on a regular basis in over a year as he played left wing this past season with Liiga’s Assat Pori team as a 17-year-old. With the team already having abandoned the Jonathan Drouin experiment at center and only getting a minimal look at Max Domi as their No. 1 center before being suspended for the remainder of the preseason, the team may be hoping that Kotkaniemi can work his way into the role at some point during the season.
Kotkaniemi was already somewhat of a mild surprise when the Canadiens took him with the third overall pick when there were better-known wingers ahead of him, including Brady Tkachuk and Filip Zadina, but it is believed that the Canadiens fell in love with Kotkaniemi’s potential as a future No. 1 center, which now looks to be immediate. The team is allowed to play him for nine games before they burn the first year of his entry-level contract. The team may want to see how he responds to playing in the regular season before making a final decision on whether to keep him, send him to the AHL’s Laval Rocket or return him to Finland.
One other interesting point made by The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (subscription required) is that the salary cap specifics could fit perfectly if the team keeps Kotkaniemi this season. He points out that if Kotkaniemi does play more than 10 games this season, then he will sign his second NHL contract in 2021-22 when the Canadiens have freed themselves of some significant cap room, including the contracts of Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry and Phillip Danault (assuming none of them get extended). It’s also significant, because the team has quite a few other prospects that are a year behind Kotkaniemi such as Nick Suzuki, Ryan Poehling as well as a potential high pick in the 2019 NHL draft who could hit a big payday in 2022-23 and might have Montreal thinking ahead to avoid having all three get paid in the same year.