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Recap: Kotkaniemi's rookie season one worth smiling about

Freshman centerman saw his world turned upside down when he joined the NHL - and he wouldn't have it any other way

by Dan Braverman @CanadiensMTL / canadiens.com

MONTREAL - Being the first player born in the 2000's to play in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues, Jesperi Kotkaniemi came into the season with the weight of an entire generation on his shoulders.

But for the young Finnish centerman, it was all about managing expectations. And then exceeding them, of course.

"I don't think anyone expected that I'd be here now," Kotkaniemi told reporters rather matter-of-factly in his exit media op after a 79-game, 11-goal, 34-point rookie campaign in the National Hockey League.

Video: WSH@MTL: Kotkaniemi beats Holtby for first NHL goal

The 18-year-old admitted that it wasn't easy at the start, but added that as he banked more experience throughout the year he became more accustomed to the pace and rigors of an NHL season.

That learning process would start again, however, as teams ramped up their intensity the closer they got to playoff time.

"It was definitely a lot harder and other team teams were doing a pretty good job there," recounted Kotkaniemi. "Teams tried to be careful with the puck and were very sharp."

Video: FLA@MTL: Kotkaniemi scores after gorgeous toe drag

It was somewhere in that push towards the playoffs that the grind of the season started to catch up with Kotkaniemi, according to head coach Claude Julien. Which is why the veteran bench boss decided to make his rookie pivot a healthy scratch for the first two games of the team's three-game California adventure in March.

"He has played a lot of hockey since the start of the season, between preseason games and Rookie Camp. Over the last few weeks, we find that he slowed down a bit. We're going to give him a chance to recover," the Habs' skipper explained of his decision at the time. "It's something that's entirely normal for a youngster who is just 18 years old. He has played more hockey than almost all of the guys on the ice since the start of the season. It isn't a decision that's based on something negative. We made it to help him finish the season strong.

"It's to get some positive performance from him moving forward and giving him a little rest and an opportunity to step back."

Despite the perceived dip in Kotkaniemi's play, any doubt over the organization's stance on the smiley rookie - not that there would've been much - was quickly put to bed by general manager Marc Bergevin at the end of the season.

"Overall, it's very positive," praised the GM at his end-of-season press conference. "We all saw that the second half was tougher for him. There was physical fatigue and mental fatigue. He's 18 years old. But, on the whole we're very satisfied and we expect even more from him in the years to come."

Video: COL@MTL: Kotkaniemi buries nifty feed from Drouin

Much of Kotkaniemi's success can be attributed to the support he got from the tight-knit group of players that made up the 2018-19 roster, and "KK" was more than happy to give them credit for taking him under their collective wing in his freshman campaign.

"It was great. We had a locker room full of great guys here. I'm 18, so all the guys took care of me. It was great to see that, I appreciate it a lot," he said. "We had a great team spirit going on here and I love being on a team like that.

"I couldn't get a better group of guys for my first year. It was a hell of a year for us and I think we will only get better."

Video: Carpooling with Victor Mete and Jesperi Kotkaniemi

With Kotkaniemi now back in his native Pori (population: 84,000) for the offseason, he'll likely be reminded of the contrast between the quiet calm of the Finnish countryside in which he's now immersed and the frenzied atmosphere that comes with playing for the most storied franchise in professional hockey.

Video: Jesperi Kotkaniemi on his rookie season in the NHL

And while the former may be what he was used to for most of his 18 years of existence, Kotkaniemi certainly wasn't complaining about the latter.

"The Bell Centre is definitely the best building to play in the world," he concluded. "I couldn't wish for anything better."

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