Montreal Canadiens: Future Is Now With Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki
|Photo Credit: Andre Ringuette Freestyle Photo/Getty Images|
When the league announced that it would expand the playoffs last season in an attempt to give teams that were still fighting for a spot a spot since the COVID-19 stoppage halted the season suddenly, it led to some interesting postseason scenarios.
One of which involved the Montreal Canadiens. Given an opportunity, could they upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the best-of-five play-in round? Given that they had one of the best goalies in the league in Carey Price, it seemed possible going in, and that’s exactly how it played out.
Montreal outed the Penguins in four games, before being eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the Conference Quarterfinals.
It was a great run for the Habs, and after an offseason filled with signings and trades, there is an air of excitement surrounding Montreal, more so than maybe usual in the hockey crazed market.
While Price returns, as does veteran captain blue line Shea Weber, how the team fairs in yet another new surrounding will likely fall on on the progression of two of the team’s youngest players - Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki.
Kotkaniemi Looking To Put Sophomore Slump Behind Him
To an extent, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Canadiens used the third overall pick in 2018 on the Finish pivot Kotkaniemi.
Where there higher rated players available? Certainly, as Kotkaniemi was the sixth ranked European skater according to Central Scouting. But in the end, the Canadiens knew that he was the guy after taking the prospect to dinner and getting to know him.
They didn’t even trade back and try to acquire an extra pick, they wanted Kotkaniemi and waited no time in drafting him.
He didn’t disappoint his rookie year. Despite the thought he could potentially go back to Finland for another season to further his development, Kotkaniemi made the NHL roster as a 18-year rookie.
Kotkaniemi scored 34 points (11 G, 23 A) in 79 games his rookie season, finishing eighth among rookie forwards and seventh on the Canadiens (among forwards).
He got on the scoreboard quickly, registering an assist on Andrew Shaw’s power play goal in his first career game. Scoring his first goal took a little bit longer, but he made it worth the wait, scoring twice in the 12th game of the season against the Washington Capitals - one of which was the game-tying goal late in the third period.
A two-way pivot capable of playing a full 200-foot game, Kotkaniemi patterned his game after fellow Finish forward and Florida Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov.
“I think he’s a little bit of the same kind of player as me, but I try to be like him,” Kotkaniemi said during the draft process. “He’s very calm when he’s on the ice and I like that.”
Another playing style comparison given during the draft process was Ryan O’Reilly, so you can see how highly regarded he is as a two-way center.
However, Kotkaniemi was not able to build upon his promising rookie season - injuries wouldn’t allow that to happen.
Playing in just 36 games this past season, the now 20-year old Kotkaniemi recorded just eight points (6 G, 2), and even spent some time in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Once the restart happened, Kotkaniemi made clear use of the break, scoring four times during the Canadiens’ ten playoff games. Kotkaniemi connected on 36.4% of his shots, obviously inflated due to the small sample size but certainly a good sign to see an offensive explosion like that coming from the Canadiens’ young forward.
During his draft year, Kotkaniemi ended up playing on the wing, leading to some concern, that despite his two-way presence, he may not be able to play center at the next level.
While his overall face off percentage needs to improve (44.9%), he has faired better in the offensive zone (47.4%) and while on the man-advantage (51.1%).
Despite playing both of his regular seasons as a teenager, Kotkaniemi has come as advertised when it comes to play in his own end.
When it comes to shutting down the opposition, and limiting opportunities, Kotkaniemi has been among the best in the league over the past two seasons.
Above’s chart shows his metrics in some defensive categories, and his percentile rank when compared to the rest of the league. Kotkaniemi was one of the best when it comes to puck possession, as well as limiting opponents opportunities, with his xGA/60 ranking in the 91st percentile.
While things on the defensive end has come natural, it has been more of a process when it comes to scoring. It’s definitely concerning that his expected goal rate kind of bottoms out, Kotkaniemi has been a willing shooter and the rest of his point output is an encouraging sign considering his age.
Suzuki: Offensive Whiz Looks To Find Scoring Touch In Sophomore Season
It’s still far too early to make any definite statements about the 2017 draft, but if Suzuki’s rookie season any indication, him falling to 13th overall was a crime. It worked out perfectly for the Canadiens, even if they weren’t the team who drafted him.
When Vegas Golden Knights came up to make their second selection of their brand new franchise, armed with an extra first round pick from the New York Islanders, they took the Owen Sound forward, fresh off a 100-point season.
Over the span of his fantastic junior hockey career, Suzuki registered 328 points (141 G, 187 A), in 251 games with Owen Sound and later the Guelph Storm.
A part of the Max Pacioretty, Suzuki came over to Montreal before ever playing a game for Vegas along with forward Tomas Tatar and a second round pick.
During the draft process, Suzuki was credited with his 200-foot game, like Kotkaniemi, with potentially more of an offensive upside.
“Plays very heady, mature two-way game. Is a talented playmaker who is also adept at finishing off plays himself. Due to his hockey smarts, he can be used with the game on the line and in defensive situations.” - - Forecaster.ca
Suzuki utilized his hockey smarts his rookie year, registering 28 assists in 71 games played. He was also able to chip in 13 goals, good for 41 points overall.
It took him six games to register a goal, but once he got going he was able to put together some good stretches. He scored his first goal against the Minnesota Wild on October 17, finding the back of the net two nights later versus the St. Louis Blues.
He posted three assists in a Canadians win against the Panthers December 29, and later register six points (1 G, 5 A) in a four game stretch from January 27 to February 2.
Suzuki was a factor on the power play as well, scoring 14 total points with the man-advantage while playing 2:10 per game. His time on ice per game was good enough for fifth among Montreal forwards, and that could go up this year as two of those players aren’t with the team anymore (Max Domi and Ilya Kovalchuk).
When it comes to play at 5v5, Suzuki was an above average playmaker, and while the goal scoring wasn’t there, some of the metrics he posted give hope that he will continue to grow into his role and find the back of the net more.
While he struggled to find the back of the net at 5v5, his expected goal rate - although still below average - being higher than his actual scoring rate shows that with more time he can start finding the back of the net more often.
Suzuki also flashed his defensive play while being on the ice as well, posting an elite 1.92 expected goals against per 60 minutes played (xGA/60), which was a tad below the 90th percentile around the league for last year, but also the team didn’t do much scoring at 5v5 while he was on the ice.
With a 1.90 goals against per 60 minutes played (GA/60), Suzuki found himself well below average when it comes to scoring while on the ice, not surprising though considering his lack of scoring.
But the hype remains, and if Suzuki finds his game, it won’t come as a surprise to anyone.
“Man, Montreal Canadiens fans had to be pleased watching the strides Suzuki made between the March pause and those playoffs just months later in 2020. He put up huge numbers in junior but only scored 13 times in 71 games for the Habs last regular season a total which I feel extremely confident he’ll blow by (could come close to doubling) even in just a 56-game season”
Canadiens: Legitimate Contenders In The North?
Now comes the biggest question of the day, can Montreal compete in the newly aligned and all Canadian North division?
After surprising the Penguins and bouncing them from the first round under unusual circumstances, don’t be surprised if they can’t do it again. They have the goaltending, defense, and rising stars down the middle.
Returning to support Kotkaniemi and Suzuki on the wing are Jonathan Drouin (15 points in 27 games played), Tatar (team leading 61 points in 68 games) and Brendan Gallagher (43 points, 59 games), as well as shutdown center Phillip Danault.
Joining will be Josh Anderson (27 goals two years ago), who Montreal acquired this offseason in exchange for Domi. Also Tyler Toffoli (24 total goals last year) joins through free agency, and Corey Perry and Michael Frolik will provide a veteran depth presence.
Not even to mention them beefing up their blue line and adding a legitimate backup goalie in Jake Allen, Montreal appears as deep as they’ve been in years.
Whether they can put it all together or not will be dependent on if Suzuki and Kotkaniemi can keep pace with some of the other center tandems they’ll be task with facing, like Auston Matthews and John Tavares, or Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
You also can’t forget Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat who helped the Vancouver Canucks push Vegas to a game seven in the Western Conference Semifinals.
While each conference presents an intriguing storyline to watch, how the North division plays out will be among the most exciting during the 2021 season.
Where do you think the Habs will finish this season? Are they favorites in the Northern division, or is someone else? Let us know in the comment section below, subscribe to the site at the link above and follow me on Twitter @AJ_Murfy and @SportBlogMurphy.