Jesperi Kotkaniemi making late push up draft boards

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Throughout the season, many draft experts mentioned that the top end prospects available in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft were wingers and defensemen. Teams looking for a center were out of luck. But that opinion seems to have shifted in the final few days leading up to the event.

That’s where Jesperi Kotkaniemi comes into play.

The 17-year-old was always going to be a first round draft pick, but his performance in the Finnish first division with Assat Pori (10 goals, 29 points in 57 games) as a teenager is pretty impressive.

Another reason why Kotkaniemi is getting so much positive press late in this process, is because he was one of the standout-players on Finland’s team that won gold at the under-18 World Junior Hockey Championship. He had three goals and six assists in seven tournament games.

“Here’s a guy who has been playing the whole season with men and against men and has played extremely well,” NHL director of European scouting Goran Stubb said, per NHL.com. “He has improved his skating. His skating was always OK, but he’s improved and this is a guy with a guy with a very special understanding of the game. He makes very intelligent decisions on the ice. He can shoot, pass, score and is a very nice young man too.”

The fact that the Montreal Canadiens own the third overall pick in this week’s NHL Entry Draft has also helped connect the dots between Kotkaniemi and a top-three selection. You see, the Canadiens have been lacking a true number one center for decades. They remain thin down the middle to this day.

The Habs took Ryan Poehling in the first round last year, so that added a bit of depth in the pipeline at that position. Adding Kotkaniemi to the mix would arguably turn the center position into a strength when it comes to prospect depth. Every team that wins the Stanley Cup seems to have quality down the middle. Montreal needs to develop a franchise player there if they’re going to be competitive again.

“I think Kotkaniemi is the best center of the draft, I think he’s superb, I think he has a game reminiscent in style to (Los Angeles Kings center) Anze Kopitar,” former NHL GM and TSN’s Craig Button said. “I don’t know where you get (centers) if you don’t draft them. (Montreal Canadiens GM) Marc Bergevin has been looking for a center, he’s trying to take wingers and making them centers or take third line centers and make them first line centers. So now you have a guy sitting right there and maybe you can use the third pick to take him at No. 3.”

If Kotkaniemi ends up being one of the biggest risers on Friday night, it’ll be interesting to see what that means for Halifax winger Filip Zadina, who is still in play for the Canadiens at third overall.

For a while, Zadina was considered as the favorite to be selected third after Rasmus Dahlin and Andrei Svechnikov, but all this chatter about Kotkaniemi has taken some steam out of the Zadina hype train.

Even if the Canadiens opt to pass on Kotkaniemi, he could still end up going to Ottawa at four, Arizona at five or Detroit at six, which would be higher than most expected him to go.

But as we all know, it’s hard to trust anything anyone says about prospects and their stock at this time of year. Teams won’t be honest and the players won’t reveal their true thoughts about where they think they’ll end up, so all most of us have to lean on are Youtube clips and independent scouting services.

Ahhhh you’ve gotta love this time of year.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.