Matt Cudzinowski | July 26
Jesperi Kotkaniemi was on the Canadiens' radar long before being plucked from the crowd third-overall at the NHL Draft in June.
It was two years ago in the town of Rauma on Finland's west coast - approximately 50 kilometres south of Kotkaniemi's hometown of Pori - that the Habs' Finnish scout, Hannu Laine, first caught a glimpse of the young centerman.
"I saw him at a Junior tournament. He was the first 2000 born player that I saw in the Finnish U20 Junior League that year," said Laine, who is tasked with scouting amateur players in Finland and pros across Europe.
He didn't just survive, he would make a difference. He was running the power play. He was telling guys where to go. That was impressive. And, he was just 15.
- Hannu Laine
Kotkaniemi was just 17 years old when he made the jump to the Finnish Elite League - or SM-liiga - this past season, where he continued to impress for Porin Ässät, going up against players far older and far more seasoned than he was.
Even though the talented Finn wasn't being featured up the middle and had to settle for a spot on the wing, he didn't disappoint. In fact, he finished the 2017-18 campaign as the club's third-ranked point-getter, tallying 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games.
He was surprisingly good. It's not every year that a guy can impress at that level. It's a pretty good league, a pretty competitive league. You could see that he was able to compete against men. I can see that he just really loves the intensity of the game. He wants to compete. He can take a hit to make a play. Those things, they can make a difference.
- Hannu Laine
That, coupled with Kotkaniemi's skill set, made him "the best prospect from Finland this year all along," according to the 20-year veteran of the Canadiens' scouting department.
"His vision, playmaking. He can make plays in traffic. He thinks the game so quick and has such quick hands. And, he's not just an offensive guy. He can play defense, too. He also likes the physical game," described Laine. "We know the character and the work ethic that he has, so he's just going to get better and better."
High praise from an SM-liiga veteran
One of Kotkaniemi's teammates with Ässät - 28-year-old forward and nine-year SM-liiga veteran, Sami Lähteenmäki - is certainly in agreement there.
"He's a guy that's so skilled that he can win a game by himself, whether it's scoring a goal, making a pass to assist on a goal or scoring on a power play in a tight game," praised Lähteenmäki, who like Kotkaniemi made his Finnish Elite League debut at just 17 years of age. "He's more ready physically than I was at 17. You can tell that he's been in a big role in the past years in Juniors. He's also a quick learner."
And, Lähteenmäki is adamant that Kotkaniemi's maturity level really stands out, too.
"We sit next to each other in the locker room, so we talked every day. It was fun sitting next to him. He's so natural. He says what he thinks, what comes to his mind. I think that helped him to become part of the team right from the start of the season," explained Lähteenmäki. "Right away, he was comfortable. He's not scared. That's good."
No doubt that aspect of Kotkaniemi's personality struck a chord with the Canadiens' brass when they met and dined with their future first-rounder at the NHL Combine in Buffalo in late May.
"He's very open-minded. He's a social guy with a good sense of humor," shared Laine. "He's a character guy. He's a lot fun."
It should come as no surprise then that Kotkaniemi - who celebrated his 18th birthday on July 6th - soaked up every single second of his time at development camp in Brossard with a big smile on his face.
If he was feeling any pressure at all with eyes aplenty on his every move, he didn't show it. If anything, he wholeheartedly embraced it.
"It was great to be in Montreal. I absolutely love the fans. There's more people at the rink in June than at Liiga games during the season," said Kotkaniemi with a laugh, referencing the solid turnout for each one of the three scrimmages at the Bell Sports Complex. "I think that's pretty amazing."
Looking to the future
The big question now is when Kotkaniemi will be returning to the city on a full-time basis after inking a three-year, entry-level contract on Canada Day. As it stands, he is still under contract for two more seasons back home.
"I'm going day by day. We'll see what happens," said Kotkaniemi, shortly after putting pen to paper in general manager Marc Bergevin's office on the South Shore.
Of course, my dream is to play in the NHL, but I'll come here when I'm ready.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi
Bergevin is of the same mindset when it comes to Kotkaniemi's status in the short-term.
"He's coming to training camp. We're going into it with an open mind. Just the fact that he signed and he's coming to camp, he's closer to the NHL," affirmed the Canadiens' GM. "Where he's going to be on October 1, I can't tell you. But, we see a lot of growth and potential in this young man."
As they do in fellow pivot Ryan Poehling, who will continue his development in the NCAA ranks at St. Cloud State University next season.
Bergevin and his staff envision the pair being the Canadiens' centermen of the future.
"I'm really happy for the Montreal Canadiens moving forward, with Poehling coming and Kotkaniemi. I think we'll have a solid down-the-middle line for years to come," said Bergevin, after picking Kotkaniemi at American Airlines Center in Dallas. "The future in that position, which is a very important position, I think it's very bright."
While Kotkaniemi and Poehling aren't teammates just yet, the two already have a great deal of respect for one another. Stall mates during development camp, they bonded rather quickly.
"I like him a lot. He's a great guy. He has funny jokes in the locker room," said Kotkaniemi of his American counterpart before flying back to Finland to resume his offseason workouts. "He's a great player. He's a big guy who skates well. I like to watch him."
Poehling was equally complimentary when asked about his new buddy.
"You can tell he's a special player," praised Poehling, whom the Canadiens selected 25th overall last summer. "Just the way he plays and how he acts off the ice, I think it shows a lot about his character and why he was drafted so high."