By JD Lagrange – Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s time with the Montreal Canadiens has been one of controversy from day one. Many fans were upset when his name was announced at the 2018 NHL Draft, third overall by the Canadiens. And the way he left the team, signing an overblown offer-sheet with the Carolina Hurricanes, controversy continued to follow him in Montreal.
He has had his ups and downs in between, granted. But overall, one must admit that the Kotkaniemi experience hasn’t been a good one… much like Alex Galchenyuk, also a third overall pick by the Canadiens. In retrospect, many will point that it has been two big missed opportunities by the Canadiens, wasting valuable picks… although one would have to acknowledge that Galchenyuk did end up bringing in Josh Anderson.
When asked if Kotkaniemi was a failed selection, Marc Bergevin was rather clear. “To say it’s a flat-out mistake, there’s a team out there that thinks he’s worth 6.1 million bucks, so there’s some potential that we saw and that, obviously, Carolina sees.”
A couple of days ago, while on BPM Sports’ Le Choc des Idées, former Canadiens’ head coach Claude Julien felt the need to share some inside information which might help better understand a few things. Why wasn’t Bergevin keen and in a hurry to re-sign the one they nicknamed KK, and why didn’t they match the offer? It seems like the organisation wasn’t totally satisfied with the attitude and progress of their young center.
“Kotkaniemi can become the player that he can become… if he wants to himself”, said Julien. “Everyone was trying to help him, but at some point, even if you help a player, he has to help himself too.”
If that doesn’t paint a clearer picture in your mind, I don’t know what will. That’s coming from his own coach and it’s not the first time we heard rumblings about KK’s attitude. But Julien hasn’t necessarily given hope for the young man’s future, but he will have to change, according to his former coach.
“Sometimes, it takes 2-3-4 years before a young player becomes mature enough et gets to recognize his own strengths and weaknesses, and work on that”, added Julien. “Now, Kotkaniemi must take the next steps to help himself.”
Some people like to claim that Christian Dvorak was acquired to replace departing Phillip Danault but it’s not the case. It’s not until the Hurricanes signed Kotkaniemi to his offer-sheet and Bergevin made the decision not to match that he traded for Dvorak. Plus, he used the compensatory first round pick from the Canes to obtain the then 25 year-old Coyotes’ center.
If you recall, Bergevin’s comments on Kotkaniemi were very much along the lines of what Julien said this week.
“KK didn’t show enough growth in his game/maturity issues and we were not confident with matching that offer-sheet”, said Bergevin back then. “We didn’t feel comfortable with bringing back a guy that clearly wants to leave. Also, some of our coaches/players told me they were not pleased with Jesperi for signing that offer-sheet. Dvorak, whom we’ve just acquired from Arizona, is a more mature player, better defensively, and we think he will match/be better with our team than KK would have been for us.”
“At the end of the day, we really like the acquisition of Christian Dvorak, who we were able with one of those draft picks (as compensation for Kotkaniemi) to go get this young center to help the organization for several years since he is signed, from our point of view, to a good salary cap that fits in well in the organization’s structure,” Bergevin added.
Let’s have a look to see if Bergevin was right in his comments about Dvorak and Kotkaniemi.
This season is really tight statistically speaking between the two players, as you will see. It’s important to note that the Canadiens are 26th overall in the NHL, battling through injuries, while the Hurricanes form a much better team, sitting second, behind only the Boston Bruins:
Now let’s compare since the 2021-22 season, with Dvorak in a Habs’ uniform and Kotkaniemi with the Canes, shall we?
I guess Bergevin was right after all, at least thus far. True that Kotkaniemi should continue to improve, but the Canadiens should also start playing some better hockey, providing better support for Dvorak as well.
That being said, it’s beside the point of the article. It seems clear that Kotkaniemi’s issue, much like Galchenyuk (with his father’s bad influence), was between the ears and not a physical skills’ issue. I certainly don’t wish the young man anything bad, but my allegiance is with the Montreal Canadiens. It has always been, and it will be until the day that I die.