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Kotkaniemi could open season with Canadiens

No. 3 pick in 2018 Draft may prove to be good fit at center

by Sean Farrell / Correspondent

BROSSARD, Quebec -- Jesperi Kotkaniemi made such a strong impression at Montreal Canadiens development camp that he could start this season in the NHL.

Chosen by Montreal with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, the 18-year-old center signed a three-year, entry-level contract at the end of the four-day camp July 1.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin said Kotkaniemi will take part in Montreal's training camp in September and did not rule out the chance he could make the team and make his NHL debut in October.

Video: Canadiens draft F Jesperi Kotkaniemi No. 3

"He got better every day, so we're going in with an open mind," Bergevin said. "I don't know, but just the fact that he's signed and he's coming to camp and he's closer to the NHL. Where he's going to be Oct. 1, I can't tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man."

The Canadiens have been searching for a bona fide No. 1 center since before Bergevin was hired May 2, 2012, and Kotkaniemi is their best hope to one day fill that crucial role.

"I go day by day and see what happens," Kotkaniemi said. "Of course, my dream is to play in the NHL, so I just say [I'll] come here when I'm ready."

The 6-foot-2, 182-pound native of Pori, Finland, had 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 57 games as a 17-year-old wing playing with and against men for Assat in Liiga, the country's top professional league.

But center is Kotkaniemi's natural position, and he sparkled there during the 2018 IIHF World Under-18 Championship with nine points (three goals, six assists) in seven games to help Finland win the gold medal.

He made a solid first impression at camp on forward Ryan Poehling, another center who was selected in the first round (No. 25) of the 2017 NHL Draft.

"I think everything about him is just smooth," Poehling said. "I mean, people say he plays a complete game like myself, but I think he's just so smooth with the puck and his stride."

Kotkaniemi enjoyed getting to know Poehling, a 19-year-old who will return to St. Cloud State for his third season this fall.

"I like him a lot," Kotkaniemi sad. "He's a great guy. He [makes] funny jokes in the locker room. And he's a great player. He's a big guy who skates well and he's very skilled so I like to watch him."

If Kotkaniemi doesn't make the Canadiens, playing for Laval of the American Hockey League is a possibility, as is another season in Finland, where he is coached by his father, Mikael, a former Liiga player.

"The games are so different in the AHL and the Liiga," Kotkaniemi said. "Here it's a little bit faster and the guys are bigger, so I think that both options are good."

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