Judging from the empty seats on most nights at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida, it’s to wonder if fans out there realise what they have in their own backyard. Aleksander Barkov put on a show against the Montreal Canadiens and what a show it was. Big, strong, and definitely skillful, he totally dominated, took over this game and not even a red-hot Carey Price could solve him on that night, his night. And there was one spectator in particular present at that game who was taking notes: Canadiens’ rookie, 18 year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
The youngest player in the NHL grew up admiring Barkov, his idol, and admitted at the Draft wanting to mold his game around the Panthers’ centre. If you’re a Habs’ fans, this is not a bad thing because they play the same position, Barkov is 6-foot 3-inches compared to Kotkaniemi’s 6-foot 2-inches frame, and they have a style that is very similar. Further, I was reminded while writing this article that they both are from the same nation as Barkov is not Russian, but was born in Tampere, Finland.
What is left to be determined is if Kotkaniemi can reach a ceiling as high as his idol did. The 23 year-old Barkov has 22 goals and 57 points in 57 games thus far this season. At first glance, expecting the Canadiens’ rookie to reach that potential seems rather unrealistic. Kotkaniemi has 10 goals and 27 points so far this year, good for eight in the NHL’s rookie scoring race.
But just for kicks and giggles, let’s compare Barkov’s first season in the NHL back in 2013-2014, to Kotkaniemi this season. It’s a good time to do this as Barkov only played 54 games that season and for this exercise, I went to Kotkaniemi’s 54th game of the season for a more level playing field. Also important to note is that Barkov also broke into the league at 18 years of age, unlike let’s say, Vancouver Canucks’ rookie sensation Elias Pettersson who was 20. Here’s what came out of this little piece of research:
Kotkaniemi is totally on par and sometimes ahead of Barkov in most major categories and that, while playing three (3) fewer minutes per game! The only category where the Habs’ rookie is trailing by a wide margin is in the giveaway column, as he is turning the puck over twice as much as Barkov did.
Early in his draft year, starting his pro career in the Finnish league, Kotkaniemi wasn’t even on anyone’s list as potential first round pick. He didn’t make Finland’s national team for the World Junior Tournament the previous year. As the season progressed, he kept climbing the ranks of NHL scouting lists to the point where when the Canadiens picked him with the third overall selection, many were surprised, some even terribly upset. It’s to wonder how these people feel today, particularly if they were shown this Barkov comparison article.
We don’t know what the future holds for Kotkaniemi. What we do know is that every player will reach his plateau, his ceiling one day. So far, the progression has been steady. He wasn’t supposed to be drafted this high. He wasn’t supposed to start the season in Montreal, even less staying all year. He wasn’t supposed to be on the powerplay. He wasn’t supposed to have enough impact for not being loaned to Finland at the WJC during the Christmas break. He wasn’t supposed to be compared to Aleksander Barkov either and yet, here we are. It will be fun to see how much further he will develop as for the Habs, the future is bring… and it likely will involve Kotkaniemi. Go Habs Go!