Kotkaniemi: Sophomore Jinx or…

How many times, not only in hockey but in professional sports, have we seen athletes having a good first season, only to take a step back in the second season? A sophomore jinx, sometimes referred to as sophomore slump or sophomore jitters, refers to an instance in which a second, or sophomore, effort fails to live up to the relatively high standards of the first effort. In terms of sports, it often speaks of an athlete’s second season. While it’s hard to put the finger on the exact cause of such change in performance, the phenomenon can be explained either psychologically, or by competing athletes or teams adjusting to ones’ success. It is then to the athlete to find a way, through hard work and perseverance, to take the next step by making the necessary adjustments.

In the NHL, there are numerous examples of players who have gone through the sophomore slump. Some have risen above it in their third or fourth season, others have crumbled under the pressure, unable to ever repeat what they set to become in their first year. When talking about high draft picks however, the tendency is for players to find a way out of that said slump by year three or four.

Here are a few names of NHL top-4 draft picks who have gone through the sophomore jinx, or have gone through a slower progression:

  • Eric Staal (#2 overall) scored 11 goals in his rookie season, only to spend his entire second season in the American Hockey League (AHL).
  • Bobby Ryan (#2 overall) had to suffer through four seasons in the AHL before making it to the NHL.
  • Kyle Turris (#3 overall) scored 8 goals in his rookie season, then had to spend the next two seasons in the AHL.
  • Ryan Johansen (#4 overall) had seasons of nine and 5 goals before turning the corner.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau (#3 overall) scored 14 goals in his rookie season, nine in his second season and 15 in his third season before taking the next step.
  • Jonathan Drouin split his first two seasons between the NHL and the AHL. That’s 70 games at the NHL level in his rookie season, down to 21 in his second (amid being in his NHL coach’s doghouse).

Granted some of those are not, by true definition, sophomore slumps but stick with me for a bit, you will see where I’m getting to.

Kotkaniemi

The Montreal Canadiens and their fans don’t have to look far to find an example of a player having more trouble in his second season. Young Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi is struggling out of the gates this season, following a promising first season in the NHL. Some people see this as alarming, others feel like it’s part of the progression for a young player in his second year at this level. The fact is that nobody knows and all will find out in a year or two… but are we patient enough to wait before holding judgment? Asking the question, particularly in Montreal, is to answer it. Patience and Habs’ fans (media too) simply don’t go hand in hand.

The kid they nickname KK was the first player born in the 2000’s to play in the NHL. Last year, he was the youngest player in the league. Yet, he still managed 11 goals and 34 points in his rookie season and that, in spite of his play fading towards the end, opening his eyes on just how long and grueling a NHL season truly is. His selection at third overall surprised many but the young man seduced the fanbase with a smile that never ends, an exemplary attitude, some promising play and charisma few players have.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki

At training camp this fall, Kotkaniemi had put on 16 pounds of muscle, something much needed as he spent a lot of time on his knees last year, being constantly pushed around by much heavier players. But straight from camp, we could see that something was off. He wasn’t skating as well and his decision making wasn’t on par to what we had seen last year. He and teammate Jonathan Drouin were taking some heat for their lackluster pre-season games and while young veteran Drouin found his game when regular season started, KK seemed to keep skating in quicksand… until he was placed on the injury list with a slight pulled groin.

The time off, or his delayed return, got a lot of people talking around Montreal. Were the Habs hiding something? Were they holding him back from making a return? Let’s just say that the conspiracy theorists were out in high numbers, questioning the so-called lack of transparency of the organisation. But hey, we’re used to that, right? Listenership, viewership and readership sells and there’s a group of fans who seems feed on that kind of stuff.

KK ended up missing seven games before returning to the line-up on November 16th against the New Jersey Devils, a game in which he only played nine minutes. In his second game back against the Columbus Blue Jackets, he logged 14:17 minutes and has nothing to show for offensively in those two games. In fact, Kotkaniemi only has three points (2 goals, 1 assist) in 14 games this season. His time on the ice per game has dropped from 13:44 minutes last season to 12:50 minutes, while his power-play time has gone from 1:56 minutes per game last season down to 1:08 so far this season.

The process

Some fans and members of the media are extremely hard on KK and while they are not wrong in pointing that his play is not where it was last year, they tend to forget that he’s only 19 years old and that developing a player is not a race. Those complaining are often the same ones who complained that the Habs “ruined” Alex Galchenyuk in his development. The truth is that the Canadiens are taking a progressive approach with the young man, adapting to his progression (or seemingly slight regression in this case). The Canadiens simply cannot miss the boat with this pick and they know it. In spite of what sensationalists will try to make you believe, Claude Julien, Dominique Ducharme and Kirk Muller are working WITH Kotkaniemi and not AGAINST him.

Also, KK is benefiting immensely from the outstanding leadership of team captain Shea Weber, Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher, Jeff Petry, Nathan Thompson, Paul Byron and company. These guys have been there and are taking the young players under their wings, Kotkaniemi included. Furthermore, the young man has the luxury of having quality players ahead of him in the lineup, which should, in theory, alleviate unnecessary pressure. But I we can be convinced of one thing: if there is any pressure placed on him, it’s not coming from within the organisation. It’s coming from blood-thirsty media members and fans who don’t know any better, or from those who so desperately want Marc Bergevin to plant himself, that they will want KK to fail in order to be proven right.

Dominique Ducharme teaches Kotkaniemi

There is no doubt that part of the pressure from fans and media is coming from the surprising play of rookie Nick Suzuki, drawing unavoidable comparisons between the two. What people do seem to forget however, is that Nick is a year older. As good as he might be now, we cannot forget that at 19, Suzuki was playing junior hockey. At 18, he was also playing junior hockey. Kotkaniemi was in the NHL. So the true question is: where will KK be in a year from now, and not so much where is he now.

In my humble opinion, from the outside looking in, Kotkaniemi is just fine. He is going through that sophomore jinx but he is in good hands. As you are well aware, I have been critical at times of Claude Julien’s decisions but I am entirely confident and supportive of the way he’s handling his young centre. He’s sheltering him more than ever. We have already debunked the myth that Julien is not good with young players, and he’s doing with KK what he’s done with other young players he’s coached before.

Some fans would like him to get on the power-play and be given a chance on the top-2 lines in hope that he finds his mojo back. It is my opinion that it would be too high of a risk and detrimental to his confidence and development to do so while he’s looking to find his game. Let’s not forget that while Julien’s job includes developing players, his main duty is to win games and put players in positions to help him do just that. KK is still a teenager playing against the best men in the world. He is filling in, growing both physically and emotionally. He is learning. He has a great attitude. He will be good, likely very good. Give him time folks and trust the process. Go Habs Go!

Habs’ Prospects Making Decisions Hard

The days are getting shorter. The nights are getting colder. The leaves are turning colour. It’s time to put away the swimming pool equipment and service the snow blowers in preparation for the long winter months. And hockey is back in full force across the NHL, the AHL, in Junior leagues and minor hockey across this beautiful country. Fans are getting excited and in Montreal, they are discovering the amazing job the organisation has done in drafting and developing those who, let’s admit it, were questioned more often than not when their names were called up at the Draft or acquired through trades.

“As a prospect, force me to make room for you in the lineup.” Those are Montreal Canadiens’ General Manager Marc Bergevin‘s words every single Fall to the team’s young prospects come training camp. Brendan Gallagher made him do it. Victor Mete did the same and just last year, while no one saw it coming, Jesperi Kotkaniemi forced Bergevin to be true to his words… and he did.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi is now close to 200 lbs

This Fall, there are four or five prospects showing that they not only belong in Montreal, but can be serious contributors to the Canadiens and who would force head coach Claude Julien into making some very difficult decisions each and every game. Those young men are pushing hard enough to question if they can play on the top-9 forwards and top-6 defensemen on the team, some of them making a case to play on the powerplay and/or on the penalty kill even. When was the last time so many young men all made a solid case to stay in Montreal? 1986 would be my guess… and we know what happened that year.

Making a case for themselves

Alex Belzile (RW) has been outstanding and at 28, he’s no typical rookie. Jake Evans (C) is smart, quick and was qualified by Laval Rockets’ coach Joel Bouchard as one of his most improved players last year. Ryan Poehling (C) is fresh out of College and in his first training camp, he’s proven that he can play. Nick Suzuki (C) almost made the team out of camp last year and he’s making another strong case this year. Cale Fleury (RD) has seen a steady progression in his play, finishing as the Rockets’ top defenseman last season.

Notables

Alexandre Alain (C/RW) was a project by Joel Bouchard and he has immensely improved over last year. Hayden Verbeek (C) came out of nowhere to show some great skills. Josh Brook (RD) is fresh out of junior and needs a bit of maturing under Bouchard in Laval. Otto Leskinen (LD) couldn’t make himself justice due to a shoulder injury but he’s close. Cayden Primeau (G) seems to be ready, or close to being ready, but a year or two in the AHL is a natural progression for the former 7th round pick.

Injuries

Michael McCarron (C/RW) has no luck. He has improved immensely under Bouchard but is once again sidelined. Joel Teasdale (LW) was the Rockets’ top points getter and seemed ready to show what he could do. Gianni Fairbrother (RD) wouldn’t have made the big club but has shown enough at rookie camp to have a serious look. Noah Juulsen (RD) is a sad, sad story. Let’s hope that his eye and head get better. Gustav Olofsson (LD) was, in my opinion, one of the most likely to cause surprises but injuries decided otherwise.

On the bubble

Riley Barber (RW), Nick Cousins (C), Charles Hudon (LW), Matthew Peca (C), Philip Varone (C), Dale Weise (RW), Christian Folin (RD), Mike Reilly (LD), Charlie Lindgren (G). Some of those guys could still make the team, others have likely skated in a Habs’ uniform for the last time. Barber, Cousins and Folin are the most likely candidates to stick with the big club, depending on what the team decides what to do with the young prospects.

Possible opening day roster

Now before we start a debate on this, let’s just forget line numbers. With this line-up, you would have a top-9 interchangeable getting similar ice time. Then you’d have a fourth line with some special units ice time as well. So no line 1, line 2 or line 3. Fair enough? Well here is what it could look like, based on nothing else but merritt:

Max Domi – Jesperi Kotkaniemi – Nick Suzuki

Tomas Tatar – Phillip Danault – Brendan Gallagher

Jonathan Drouin – Ryan Poehling – Paul Byron

Artturi Lehkonen – Nate Thompson – Joel Armia

Spare(s): Alex Belzile, Jordan Weal

Victor Mete – Shea Weber

Ben Chiarot – Jeff Petry

Brett Kulak – Cale Fleury

Spare(s): Christian Folin

Carey Price – Keith Kinkaid

Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling

That’s a 23 men roster. Now look at the fire power for a team that has been lacking offensively for years now. Three lines that will contribute game in, game out, and a fourth line that’s defensively responsible but will chip in offensively too.

When you’re forced to have Lehkonen and Armia on your fourth line, it’s a sign of depth… quality depth. Those guys would be used on the upper lines based on games situations. For example, at the end of a game to protect a lead, Lehkonen could replace Drouin, Armia could replace Gallagher and Thompson could be place in defensive faceoffs for Kotkaniemi.

I do have two major concerns though. For one, I’m old school and I feel like there aren’t enough guys who can instate respect by dropping the gloves if or when need be. Yes, Weber can but he’s much, much better on the ice than spending five minutes in the penalty box. And two, the left side of the defense is adequate but not strong enough with Mete up there. He’d be better suited to a second or third pairing so Bergevin, so far, has failed to truly address that top pairing left defense.

Either way, no matter what decisions are made, this team promises to be fast, in your face and difficult to play against. And for the first time in a very long time, it seems to have enough quality depth to survive the inevitable injuries bound to occur during a long, grueling hockey season. They’ll be fun to watch folks. Go Habs Go!