Jesperi Kotkaniemi is getting a lot of attention leading up to the 2018 NHL Draft, and has the potential to be a top-five pick.
The center, who turns 18 on July 6, is No. 6 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of European skaters eligible for the draft at American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23. The first round is June 22 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Rounds 2-7 are June 23 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS).
Kotkaniemi (6-foot-1, 188 pounds) had 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games as a 17-year-old for Assat in Liiga, Finland's top men's professional league, which helped catch the eyes of scouts.
"Here's a guy who has been playing the whole season with men and against men and has played extremely well," NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb said. "He has improved his skating. His skating was always OK, but he's improved and this is a guy with a guy with a very special understanding of the game. He makes very intelligent decisions on the ice. He can shoot, pass, score and is a very nice young man too."
Centers have both offensive and defensive responsibilities, but Kotkaniemi takes pride in his ability to think about the game to get results.
"I think I read the game well; that's my biggest thing is my game and so I'm good at that at the men's level," Kotkaniemi said. "I also have a good shot but I sometimes think that I need to use it a little bit more there when it's hard to find the passing lane."
Kotkaniemi climbed up to sixth from ninth at the midterm rankings. That rise could continue at the draft.
"I think Kotkaniemi is the best center of the draft, I think he's superb, I think he has a game reminiscent in style to (Los Angeles Kings center) Anze Kopitar," TSN director of scouting, NHL analyst and former NHL general manager Craig Button said. "I don't know where you get (centers) if you don't draft them. (Montreal Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin has been looking for a center, he's trying to take wingers and making them centers or take third line centers and make them first line centers. So now you have a guy sitting right there and maybe you can use the third pick to take him at No. 3. (Columbus Blue Jackets GM) Jarmo Kekalainen took Pierre-Luc Dubois at No. 3 (in 2016) and there was a lot of hand wringing.
"If I'm Montreal and like Kotkaniemi I think go for it. People will criticize one way or another but just make sure you get the player you want and move forward."
The team that selects Kotkaniemi will be getting a winning player. He led Finland to gold at the Under-18 World Junior Championship in Russia and had nine points (three goals, six assists) in seven games playing alongside fellow 2018 draft prospects Rasmus Kupari and Sampo Ranta.
"He's an excellent player and skillful and smart and fast," Kupari said of Kotkaniemi. "All teams want that kind of player for themselves."
Winning gold, and defeating the United States in the final game to do it, has been the biggest accomplishment to date for Kotkaniemi.
"It was unbelievable," Kotkaniemi said. "I'll never forget that feeling when we won. I threw my gloves in the air and it was unbelievable. I think the biggest thing with our team was we had a great team spirit there; it was a locker room full of great guys. That was a great thing and I liked it very much. Every day was a great day to go to the rink and have fun with the guys. We played well and I think we had a better team than the USA."
No Canadian junior team has Kotkaniemi's rights and he said he will take things day by day leading up to the draft. For now, he'll continue to play for Assat where his father Mikael, a nine-year pro player in Europe himself, is his coach.
"That's my one dream to win the Finnish Liiga championship," Kotkaniemi said. "I've always played there with Assat so that's one of my biggest dreams to win the Finnish championship with Assat."