The 2018 third overall selection of the Montreal Canadiens surprised some by making the club out of training camp and made his NHL debut in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night with an assist point.
“Of course I think my game has been a little bit different, a little bit harder, but I am feeling a little bit more comfortable everyday,” Kotkaniemi said of his adjustment to the North American and NHL game.
“I have worked hard in training camp so I think I’ve earned this place.”
The native of Pori, Finland didn’t look out of place in his debut. He finished with just over 15 minutes of ice time while winning one of seven face-offs in the loss. Kotkaniemi also assisted on Andrew Shaw’s second -period goal to pick up his first career NHL point.
At 18 years and 89 days old, Kotkaniemi becomes the second-youngest player in Canadiens history to record a point. The youngest is Mario Tremblay, who accomplished the feat at 18 years, 74 days.
“It was fun, I enjoyed every moment there, but the result wasn’t what we wanted,” he said following the game.
Kotkaniemi spent a bulk of the night centering Montreal’s second line with Jonathan Doruin and Joel Armia.
Armia, the 25-year-old in his fifth professional season in North America, hails from the same home town as Kotkaniemi, Pori – a city on the west coast of Finland with a population of 85,000. Armia has lent a helping hand to Kotkaniemi as he gets used to life in Canada.
“He has helped me a lot,” Kotkaniemi said. “He’s from the same home town as me so we might have that little home town connection. It’s fun to play with him and he helps me a lot off the ice.
“When I was younger, he was my idol so it’s awesome to play with him.”
Players from both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs had advice for Kotkaniemi as he embarks on his first NHL season. Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher, who broke into the NHL five years ago as a 20-year-old, says his new teammate should make the most of his opportunity.
“Enjoy the opportunity. He’s worked his whole life for this one moment and he’s made it, he’s just got to take advantage of it and enjoy it as best as you can,” said Gallagher. “The way you do that is to work hard and try and have success. He doesn’t need to change a thing. Same thing he did in the preseason, he was playing with a little pressure in the preseason trying to make the team and I think that probably gets him ready for (the regular season).”
Fellow Finn Kasperi Kapanen of the Maple Leafs is well aware of the pressures of playing in a major Canadian market.
“I think just enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t think you should take it too seriously. I feel like fans in Montreal and Toronto are pretty harsh and just enjoy it and do you I guess. Just have fun.”
On Wednesday, Kotkaniemi, born 6 July 2000, became the third-youngest player to debut for the Canadiens and is the first player born in the 2000s to suit up in a regular-season NHL game.
Despite his age, and having to line up against the likes of John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri of the Maple Leafs, Montreal coach Claude Julien was impressed with the play of the six-foot-two, 188-pound Kotkaniemi.
“I don’t think he looked out of place. I think if you want to win hockey games, you have to put players that are capable of making some big plays and creating some offence - he’s certainly one of those guys,” Julien said. “I think what I saw from him (Wednesday night) was a guy whose first experience was a good one.
“I thought he did well, but at the same time I know he’s one of those guys that’s going to continue to adjust himself like he’s done since the beginning. This was his first real test against a solid NHL team and I thought he answered the call very well, but he’s realizing too that things are closing quicker and he’s going to adjust. I was really happy with the way as an 18-year-old in his first game he handled himself.”
Kotkaniemi has started the season in the NHL, but his position with Montreal isn’t set in stone. He could still be sent to develop with the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket or could back home for Assat Pori where he scored 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games while playing for his father Mikael Kotkaniemi last season.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi joked his father would prefer to have him back playing in Finland this season rather than the NHL.
“I hope he’s happy. I think he’s happy,” said Jesperi Kotkaniemi. “It’s my dream so I think he wants to see I’m doing well here and I’m enjoying every day so I think he will be happy too.
“If he thinks like a coach, maybe he wants me back, but as my dad, he’s happy I’m here.”
Kotkaniemi is also eligible for the Finnish world junior team at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Vancouver and Victoria later this year. He helped Finland win gold at the U18 Worlds in Russia earlier this year scoring three goals and six assists in seven games.