Just outside the top five, we come to one of the biggest risers of the 2018 NHL Draft: Finnish centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi. I bemoaned the lack of respect Kotkaniemi was getting early on in the season (especially relative to fellow Finn Rasmus Kupari), but by the time the Five Nations and World Under-18 tournaments had come and gone, damn near everyone has gotten on board the Kotkaniemi train. He now sits between 10 and 15 on most industry rankings, and we think that even that is underrating his potential to some extent – that’s why we’ve got him well inside the top ten. Kotkaniemi checks in at no. 6 on our Top 100 Ranking.
- Age/Birthdate: 19 / July 6, 2000
- Birthplace: Pori, FIN
- Frame: 6-foot-2 / 190 lbs
- Position: Centre
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: Assat (Liiga)
- U18 WJC Gold Medal
- U18 WJC Top 3 Player on Team
- Jr. A SM-liiga Silver Medal
- U18 WJC Silver Medal
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Kotkaniemi’s percentiles look as about you’d expect them to given a high quality prospect in a professional league. He’s up near the top when it comes to league adjusted metrics like SEAL and pGPS, and in the upper-middle area in most other metrics. It’s be extremely difficult for a teenager in a pro league to match, say, the involvement percentage of a teen in a Canadian junior league. One thing that stands out here: his shots per game right is up near the top of the class. That’s not league adjusted either – he generated shots at a rate of 2.77 per game, which sits in the 93rd percentile among all available players, all while playing pro hockey against men.
Adjusted Scoring (SEAL)
Kotkaniemi is one of the best players available when it comes to the SEAL adjusted scoring metric. Some of that had to do with an impressive even strength scoring rate (especially primary points), some of it had to do with the fact that he’s quite young for his draft year, but most of it, unsurprisingly, had to do with the fact that he put up a very respectable point rate in a professional league.
Kotkaniemi dealt with a wide variety of linemates this season, as evidenced by the unusual fact that four of the five players he most frequently shared the ice with were defencemen. It’s no wonder that his Scoring Network (seen above) shows that his points were widely spread among teammates, with his 16 assists setting up 12 different players, and his nine goals being assisted by ten different players. What this suggests to me is that he was far from reliant on any individual linemates to produce points – he produced with pretty much anyone he was put with.
The pGPS formula has some tight constrictions to ensure that all players are treated the same way. It’s well known that age and height form a theoretical window from which potential matches can be drawn, but the seasons from which comparable players are considered is also important. The beginning season varies based on the quality of data available from Elite Prospects (and occasionally HockeyDB), but the ending season is static for all leagues. Currently, the last league being considered is 2010-11, which gives comparable prospects seven years from their first eligible draft season to essentially become what they’re going to become.
This is relevant in Kotkaniemi’s case because Liiga is a league that has improved tremendously in quality over the last few decades. It pumps out far more NHL players now than it did in the 1990’s or earlier, and that can mess with the fundamental pGPS strategy. Essentially, pGPS has a tendency to underrate Liiga players because more players (proportionally to total) graduate to the NHL from that league now than they did 20 years ago.
So while Kotkaniemi’s official Expected Likelihood of Success is 50%, and his official successful comparables are Tuomo Ruutu and Joel Armia, if I open out the eligible seasons to include the years since 2010-11, we can see some more players to which that Kotkaniemi produced at a similar rate. Those include Sebastian Aho, Artturi Lehkonen, and Jesse Puljujarvi (his dot, to the right of Armia’s, isn’t labeled because he fell below the NHL games threshold, but it’s not like he won’t get there eventually).
I’ve been a Kotkaniemi backer all season and that isn’t changing now. The story of Kotkaniemi’s rise to prominence is intertwined with the tale of his countryman, Rasmus Kupari, who spent the first half of the season ranked above Kotkaniemi by virtually all outlets. The one thing that Kupari had going for him were great numbers at the 2017 Ivan Hlinka tournament, but as I detailed in the over/underrated article in December, there were far more reasons to have Kotkaniemi ahead of Kupari. In fact, going back to the 2016-17 season, Kotkaniemi was considered the de facto top Finn of the 2018 class, and for good reason. He has consistently outproduced Kupari in international tournaments and domestic junior leagues for quite some time. Earlier this season, Kotkaniemi began having immediate success in the Finnish Liiga, while Kupari struggled to stay in the top league, instead bouncing between Junior and Mestis, the second tier pro league through the middle of the season.
Still, it took most scouting services until the IIHF Five Nations tournament in February to see the error of their ways. Between that tournament and his clear superiority in Liiga cemented Kotkaniemi as the top Finnish prospect. It was then his dynamic performance at the World Under-18’s in Russia than further shot him up draft boards, teetering on the edge of the top ten.
The Finnish forward has impressed traditional scouts and data miners alike, and has drawn stylistic comparisons to the likes of Anze Kopitar and Aleksander Barkov (who he has stated that he models his game after). He’s a versatile player that stands out more for the fact that he’s quite good at everything, rather than being very good at one specific thing. Two of the aspects that he possesses in bunches are intelligence and vision, coordinating with high quality puck skills to make the plays he sees an effortless reality. One thing that really stood out to me during the U18 tournament was an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, especially on the forecheck. Pucks seem to find him rather that the other way around, and it takes him a mere matter of moments to find a teammate in a dangerous area and deliver a perfect pass before the defensive team even realizes he’s picked up the loose puck.
If you watch the highlight package below, you’ll notice that Kotkaniemi picked his fair share of corners this season, which is interesting because his shot is generally considered to be good but not great. Granted, his shot is still good enough to beat pro goalies clean given enough looks, but he stacks the deck by utilizing his intelligence to his advantage. Approaching from the outside, he veers into the middle, where angles and shooting percentages begin to favour the shooter, and actively uses the feet of opponents to conceal his release.
Kotkaniemi also has no qualms about going hard to the net and looking to clean up loose pucks in close. He’s won over a lot of tradional minded hockey folk with his willingness to go to the so-called “hard areas” of ice, be that at the net front, or in the corners. “He is skilled, foes into physical battles and he’s unpredictable with his moves,” a scout told The Hockey News for the 2018 Draft Issue. But Kotkaniemi is more the just willing to get into corner battles – he relishes it.
“I’m [a] big guy,” he told reporters at the NHL Combine. “I like going in the corners and being in front of the net. I love those hard battle.” That’s music to most general managers’ ears, I’m sure.
Defensively, he’s sound positionally, and again that intelligence comes into play. He seems to know where his opponents are going before they know it themselves, and he gets himself into their paths and picks pockets on a frequent basis. Instead of burning up the ice with the puck (which isn’t really in his repertoire), he quickly finds teammates in motion and immediately gets the play moving in the right direction. As some smart folks once said, the puck moves faster than anybody can skate.
If we’re going to find flaws in Kotkaniemi’s game, his skating is probably the most obvious one. His top speed is good enough for pro hockey, but his acceleration isn’t there yet, and even though he displays solid agility, sometimes his hands and puck skills are simply too good for his feet and an abundance of dekes can throw him off balance. His overall skating ability has been a clear point of focus over the course of the season, and scouts observed a tremendous development between the Hlinka tournament prior to the season and the World Under-18 tournament at the end of it. His improvement to this point, combined with his relentless work ethic is enough to assuage most of the concerns in this area. The smart money on this point is on his skating being very passable for the NHL level soon enough, and his talents in other others are more than enough to overcompensate and afford him a high degree of success.
The fact that Kotkaniemi is listed as a centre in a notably centre-weak draft has been thought of as yet another advantage for him – it’s likely that it could cause his name to go off the board earlier than it otherwise might if there were more centres available in the top ten. As it stands, Kotkaniemi is the highest ranked centre on our board, and that is likely going to be the case for many others.
The one point of concern there is that Kotkaniemi didn’t spend much of this season at centre, instead moving to the wing for his rookie season in Liiga. This is one area where Kupari actually has the advantage: Kotkaniemi took just 43 faceoffs in 57 games to Kupari’s 272 in 39 games. Kupari was also far more successful, winning 50.4% of his faceoffs compared to Kotkaniemi’s 44.2%.
This is a similar to the situation that the Vancouver Canucks are facing with Elias Pettersson, a player they took to be their future no. 1 centre, but instead looks poised to at least start his career on the wing. Like Pettersson, Kotkaniemi has stated his preference for the centre position, and certainly plays the type of game that centres need to play, even if his footspeed isn’t quite where it needs to be yet. Any team taking Kotkaniemi with hopes of him being a future pivot for them will surely be aware of this, and will likely have a good idea about how they’re going to handle it. Personally, I think that the continuing development of his skating will allow him to be successful down the middle of the ice.
All told, there is a whole lot to like about Jesperi Kotkaniemi. If all goes accordingly to plan, he projects to be a play-making, two-way centre, and probably is more likely to be a good no. 2 than a no. 1. But that shouldn’t detract anyone, given the draft class he is a part of – he still boasts the best upside at centre this draft has to offer in my opinion. He offers desirable character, a high degree of intelligence, and a game style that incorporates strategy and anticipation that accentuates palpable skill. The quickness is really the only hang-up, and even though I believe it’s something that he will overcome. But it will require substantial further development – if that area of progression stalls, he won’t likely become an impact NHLer. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt though, and I think we’ll see him start a long successful NHL career in just a year or two from now.
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From Future Considerations:
A rangy forward, he’s got the reputation of a player who can get things done. Not an elite skater, but he can still threaten offensively. A bulky forward with strong puck skill, hockey sense, and quickness, he’s deadly inside the hash marks as a setup man and a goal scorer.
From HockeyProspect.com’s 2018 Black Book:
Kotkaniemi demonstrated a mature, all-around game that fives him a high-floor with a lot of upside, his versatility allows him to move up and down a line-up and we see him as potentially developing into a solid two-way centre at the NHL level.
From The Hockey News’ 2018 Draft Issue:
To the young man’s credit, he has put a lot of work in already, and evaluators took note. “His skating has come a long way, and he works on it practically every day,” said another scout. “His upper body leans forward, and they are correcting that.”
From McKeen’s Hockey 2018 Draft Guide:
His plus size comes with strength and he uses that to aid in his possession-based style of play. His hands are soft and quick and help him flash in one-on-one situations. That said, he needs those hands to razzle-dazzle, as they need to compensate for his average at best foot speed. He can get around well enough, but he has choppy strides, which hamper his acceleration and explosiveness.
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