When Jesperi Kotkaniemi makes his awaited return to the Bell Centre, he will be met with some cheers but mostly boos.
But his return will also serve as a stark reminder that only one of two things can be true…
The Montreal Canadiens either selected the wrong player with the third overall pick of the 2018 NHL entry draft or the team didn’t do a good job developing the asset.
Team and player were all smiles when Montreal took the podium in Dallas to select their franchise centre of the future. Comparisons at the time indicated that the young player from Pori, Finland could be a player in the mold of Los Angeles Kings’ superstar Anze Kopitar.
The player that went with the pick after the Canadiens selected Kotkaniemi, was power forward Brady Tkachuk who went to division rival Ottawa. Tkachuk with NHL bloodlines, brother Matthew already playing in the NHL and Father Keith, one of the greatest American born players of all-time.
There’s two ways to look at the Canadiens decision to draft Kotkaniemi. The organization had been searching for a franchise centre for as long as most fans can remember. Alex Galchenyuk never panned out in the middle of the ice and he was selected third overall in 2012 with General Manager Marc Bergevin’s first draft pick in Montreal.
Or they could have taken the best player available, it’s the prudent thing to do when drafting. Just imagine if the 2007 Chicago Blackhawks had drafted Kyle Turris first overall in 2007, instead of future Hall of Famer Patrick Kane, because they had a need at centre. They don’t win three Stanley Cups in five years.
But Montreal said all the right things at the time. They believed that although Kotkaniemi and Tkachuk play two different styles and positions, the talent level difference between the two was so minute, that they could try to take a stab at filling a gaping hole in their lineup.
“You take a look around the league, the asset value lies within centermen,” said Montreal’s assistant GM and head scout Trevor Timmins at the draft in 2018. “And not only that, but a center can also be moved to the wing. We see something in these players, now we’re going to hand these young guys off to our development team and our coaches and now it’s their responsibility and job to help these guys hopefully reach their potential.”
Was the scouting staff wrong to believe that Kotkaniemi could be the centre of the future? Or did something go wrong along the way?
After being the third pick in the draft, he was a standout at the team’s rookie camp in the fall. He parlayed an extraordinary rookie camp into a strong training camp and finally a spot on the opening night roster.
With hindsight, it’s easy to see that sensible thing to do would have been to send him back to Finland to play in the SM-liiga and master his craft. Montreal’s desperate need for a centre and Kotkaniemi’s play however, made it tantalizing to keep him around.
Even Bergevin admitted following the offer-sheet signing, that keeping him in the NHL at 18-year-old might have been a mistake.
“To be honest, I’m not perfect we do make sometimes not the right the decision, but we try to do things for the right reason,” said Bergevin in late Aug. “I remember he had a great camp, good first half and was playing very and well and I was like okay maybe he is ready. But then I’m looking three, four years later and that’s the way it happens.”
Nobody can fault a young 21-year-old for accepting a contract that will pay him three times his market value. He could flourish in Carolina and prove that the Canadiens both made the right pick and had no negative impact in him developing into a star player.
But regardless of the result, unlike draft day, nobody is smiling when they hear the name Kotkaniemi.