Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ässät (Liiga)
Position: Center/Left Wing
Age on Draft Day: 18.0
Height/Weight: 6’2, 190 pounds
2017-2018 Stats (Including Playoffs): 64 GP, 10 G, 19 A, 26 PIM, -5
NHL Central Scouting: 6th (European Skaters)
Bob McKenzie (TSN): 10th
Craig Button (TSN) (March): 10th
ISS Hockey: 16th
Future Considerations: 13th
HockeyProspect.com (March): 15th
Unusually, it took eight players before we got to our first center of the draft class. Alex Nunn has contributed his own scouting report, and then I’ll follow with my own thoughts.
Kotkaniemi’s biggest strength is his reliable versatility. He’s a safe bet across the board; able to slide in at center or wing, run a powerplay, kill penalties, set up chances, and finish scoring opportunities with a sneaky dagger release from anywhere in the offensive zone.
The 17-year-old has soft hands though rarely overdoes it in possession. He uses deft stickhandling to evade opposition pressure and buy himself time to assess situations, but still knows just when to move the puck on. If there’s a pass to be made, he’ll make it. If there’s a shot to be taken, he’ll take it.
Kotkaniemi engages physically to create shooting lanes and has a knack for tracking down loose pucks in the slot area. His awareness and ability to read two steps ahead means he can quickly turn a nothing neutral-zone play into a great scoring chance the other way.
What he lacks in first-step explosiveness and top-end speed Kotkaniemi makes up for with excellent edge-work and lower-body strength. He’s a difficult guy to knock around and manoeuvres through traffic well.
Ässät coaching staff have already pinned late-game defensive minutes on Kotkaniemi, one of the younger draft-eligible players. He spent much of 2017/18 at wing and rarely missed a beat in his first season against grown men.
While Alex viewed Kotkaniemi in Finland’s Liiga, I got my looks during the U18 Five Nations and U18 World Championship tournaments. In both tournaments, Kotkaniemi played a key role for Finland. As Alex mentioned, he is a versatile player with many quality traits, so let’s break down a few of them.
Kotkaniemi has a creative mind and great stickhandling ability. He is shifty with the puck and plays an east-west style, making clever moves to create space for himself and get defenders out of his grill. He’s constantly moving around the offensive zone looking for spaces to receive the puck. He relies taking a wide stance and wrong-footing defenders with stick, body, and head fakes. Like with any skilled player, sometimes he’ll try to make a play and fail. However, he’s not one to annoy his coach by forcing ill-advised solo efforts. To reiterate what Alex said, he has a strong sense of when it’s he’s run out of real estate and it’s time to move the puck. Something particular I noticed is that even when Kotkaniemi runs into trouble, he so often corrects a mistake and wins loose pucks back with a second effort.
The natural evolution of these abilities is an extension towards playmaking. Kotkaniemi has great vision and the hands to pull of some crafty passes. In 17 international U18 games this year, Kotkaniemi registered 11 assists. Here are two such primary assists.
Kotkaniemi has strong wrists, and with a flick he can elevate pucks on net. Particularly from in tight, as Alex’s videos showed.
In Liiga, Kotkaniemi registered 29 points in 57 games. Those pretty strong numbers for a 17-year-old. Here is how he compares to other U18 forwards over the last 30 seasons.
The caveat here is that Kotkaniemi’s goal numbers are, though not non-existent, certainly lower than ideal. An optimistic perspective is that his 6.3% shooting was low; among the 60 Liiga forwards with at least 150 shots last season, he ranked 41st in shooting percentage. Perhaps there is upside there. We’ll have more on his production later.
Kotkaniemi is equally a defensive stalwart. As Alex mentioned, his Liiga team used him in key defensive situations. For Finland at the U18 level, he was the go-to shutdown center. He reads the play so well and closes down on players with the puck. Up the ice, he does a tremendous job of reading plays and anticipating where pucks will go, thereby cutting off passes. He’s not an overly physical player, but picks players’ pockets to sustain pressure or even create transition chances. Alex showed a couple example of this in Liiga. Here are a few more from U18 games.
The biggest issue with Kotkaniemi is his skating. His first few strides are pretty awkward, and his straight-line speed is just okay. Kotkaniemi compensates perfectly well by thinking the game well, and he skates sufficiently enough to keep up. It’s merely an aspect of his game that might limit his upside to “very good” instead of “great.” Watch for 28 in the middle lane in the following clip and you’ll see how his first few strides are somewhat crude.
I recognize that my ranking of Kotkaniemi is aggressive. I had an extremely tough time finding separation between him and four other players ranked behind him, and I admit to hesitating throughout the process. When the margins are that thin, there can be information scouts can uncover that could change the rankings, such as player interview, report cards from that player’s coaches, a study of the player’s genetic history, and so on. In the end, with the information I have access to, I went with my gut. There were a number of supporting details.
Quite simply, Kotkaniemi was impressive for a 17-year-old in a difficult professional league. Looking at the of list similarly aged players in Liiga previously cited, only Alex Barkov and Rasmus Kupari are also centers. That Kotkaniemi played meaningful offensive and defensive minutes for Ässät is no small feat, and though he spent the first half of the season on the wing, he got more opportunity in the middle towards the end of the year. And while Liiga’s best teams might not be on par with the top Russian or Swedish squads, Liiga is still a strong league. SEAL-adjusted scoring rewards him for his performance in a tough league, as he ranks sixth among all 2018 draft-eligible players in production once it is adjusted for age and league factors, among others.
He also has a July birthday, meaning he is one of the youngest players in the draft class. Five-to-eight months might be a negligible difference in age among players in their mid-20s, but for 17-and-18-old players that’s a pretty decent chunk of developmental time.
This is a player who can help your team in a number of different ways. He can be the focal point of a line offensively and make goals happen with the puck on his stick in a number of creative ways. On the 1-3-1 power play, he’s a great option for the high slot presence. He’s a quality shutdown forward who disrupts the opposition’s breakouts and transitions. Will he become the inarguable franchise center that every team dreams of building around? No, probably not. He’s already a strong player at a young age, though, and has relatively safe upside as a bonafide, all-situations top-six center.
As other draft rankings show, Kotkaniemi is a safe bet to be around when the Rangers are on the clock at ninth overall. For all of their needs, they’re actually in pretty good shape at center. However, teams are drafting players with the intended payoff coming five years down the line. You don’t know what might happen in-between. Players might not live up to their potentials, or could get injured or traded. Needs change rapidly in the NHL. If you end up with a surplus, then you can always trade from it. For centers in particular, it’s never not a seller’s market.
Or, as the 2008-2010 Penguins (Jordan Staal) and 2013-2015 Rangers (Derick Brassard) proved, having an overqualified third-line center is hardly the worst fate. Draft talent now, and deal with need later.
What Others Have Said
Ässät teammate Antoine Laganiére (via Journal de Québec):
“He is super talented. He is an excellent puckhandler...He stands out by his vision of the game, he makes passes that many guys will never be able to do. He has an exceptional offensive talent for a young man of his age.”
Corey Pronman, The Athletic:
“There still isn’t a premier No. 1 center (in the 2018 NHL Draft), but Kotkaniemi is the closest to that in my view.”
Marco Bombino, FinnishJuniorHockey.com:
“He’s a skilled, deft stickhandler who can operate with the puck in traffic and exhibited confidence while doing so in today’s game.”