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Stu Cowan: Jesperi Kotkaniemi growing up in front of Canadiens fans

Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi takes down Penguins defenceman Brian Dumoulin during Eastern Conference qualifications last week. The young centre was a difference-maker for Montreal in the series.
Canadiens' Jesperi Kotkaniemi takes down Penguins defenceman Brian Dumoulin during Eastern Conference qualifications last week. The young centre was a difference-maker for Montreal in the series.

TORONTO — Canadiens fans are getting to watch Jesperi Kotkaniemi grow up before their eyes.

So is coach Claude Julien.

As a rookie last season, Kotkaniemi became Montreal’s adopted hockey son. The No. 3 overall pick at the 2018 NHL Entry Draft surprised just about everyone — probably even himself — when he made the team out of training camp. The Finnish teenager quickly won the hearts of Canadiens fans with his smile, youthful exuberance and the way he played on the ice.

It was wonderful.

Then Kotkaniemi hit a wall and was made a healthy scratch for the first time in back-to-back games in early March. He finished last season with 11-23-34 totals in 79 games, an impressive rookie performance for an 18-year-old adjusting to a new country, a new language, the smaller NHL rink and the adoration of a city.

He handled it all so well.

I always enjoyed chatting with Kotkaniemi in the locker room last season and he had a really good sense of humour, even though he was still working on his English. The fact I have a son about the same age made me appreciate even more what Kotkaniemi was going through and I admittedly developed a soft spot for him.

This season didn’t go so well.

Kotkaniemi had knee surgery during the off-season and also added 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-2 frame, tipping the scales at 198 pounds while growing into his body — sort of like a Great Dane puppy. That can be awkward.

Kotkaniemi simply wasn’t the same player when the season started and his smile started to disappear. He wasn’t as much fun to talk with. Life in the NHL makes players grow up quickly and Kotkaniemi was no longer a kid, despite his age.

In February, after posting 6-2-8 totals in 36 games and a minus-11, the Canadiens sent Kotkaniemi down to the AHL’s Laval Rocket, where he suffered what was supposed to be a season-ending spleen injury on March 6. Then COVID-19 came along, giving Kotkaniemi four months to recover from his injury and he was healthy when the Canadiens opened their NHL Return to Play training camp in Brossard.

Kotkaniemi quickly impressed Julien with his skating. Again, he looked like a different player, but this time in a good way.

“It was just right from the get-go,” Julien said during a video conference Wednesday morning before the Canadiens faced the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. “He was just skating better and, as I mentioned, he had knee surgery over the course of last summer and he came to camp and didn’t quite have that step. You know, when you’re behind the 8-ball it’s hard to catch up and he never really had a great chance to catch up. So I think this four-month break benefits certain players and he’s one of those guys that benefited from it.”

Kotkaniemi impressed Julien enough to earn the third-line centre spot at training camp and he played a key role in the Canadiens’ beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoff qualifying round, scoring two goals in the four games while providing a physical presence. Kotkaniemi celebrated his 20th birthday on July 6 and appears to have become a man on NHL ice — even growing a playoff beard.

“KK has definitely been a difference-maker in this series,” linemate Jonathan Drouin said on a video conference Tuesday. “For me, he just looks more comfortable. I don’t want to say timid when he came in the league, but as with every young guy, you kind of feel it out. You don’t know who to hit, all that stuff. But right now there’s not much thinking in his game, which I like. He’s a big body, he’s using that big body. Obviously, he put a little muscle during those three or four months, which is great for us. If he keeps playing that way, he’s going to have a lot of success in this league. He’s hitting guys, he’s going to pucks, he’s not waiting. He’s not looking around to see who’s going first. He wants to be the first guy on there.”

It would be nice for the Canadiens if some of that rubbed off on Drouin.

“I think KK is playing really good hockey right now,” said Joel Armia, Kotkaniemi’s other linemate. “He’s really physical on the ice and makes good plays. So it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

“I like the way KK came back here confident and battling more hard,” teammate Phillip Danault added. “He understands a lot of things I think (from being) in the AHL (this) season and he’s confident now.”

The Canadiens have been weak down the middle for so many years it’s hard to count. But the future is looking much brighter thanks to Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki, who had replaced Danault on the No. 1 line between Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher by the end of the Penguins series.

Growing up in the NHL isn’t easy, but it’s certainly interesting to watch.

scowan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/StuCowan1

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