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Kotkaniemi gives Canadiens something to be excited about

Montreal Canadiens fans haven’t had much to cheer about lately.

It makes sense, then, that Jesperi Kotkaniemi experienced the sort of ovation he’ll never forget after scoring a goal on his first shot in his first pre-season NHL game.

Kotkaniemi flashed some of the brilliance – not to mention a big, affable smile – that made him the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft on the play. Not only did he manage to handle a rolling puck and send it into the net, but he also showed poise in shaking off a hard hit while making a pass that really got things rolling.

“That was sick,” a giggly Kotkaniemi told the media after Montreal’s 3-1 preseason win against New Jersey Monday night. “I’ve never heard a crowd that loud. It was pretty unbelievable.”

Habs fans clearly relished that moment, lavishing Kotkaniemi with additional praise once he was announced as the game’s third star:

Canadiens head coach Claude Julien underscored the on-ice adjustment Kotkaniemi faces as an 18-year-old with limited exposure to NHL-sized rinks and NHL-sized players (whom he compared to “superheroes”).

“He’s still a junior player to a lot of people’s eyes, and this is North American hockey on a smaller rink,” Julien said, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “We play a much more aggressive style than they do where he’s from. But, again, I think you have to appreciate the way he handled himself tonight in the game and showed his skill level. He showed his patience. He’s also learning on the fly and I think he’s getting better and better on a daily basis. So it’s encouraging to see how well he’s doing so far.”

[Montreal mismanagement: Canadiens wasted opportunity with Max Pacioretty]

It would be a steep learning curve for any player, but the transition overseas is unlikely to be smooth. The Athletic’s Arpon Basu notes (sub. required) that Kotkaniemi really hadn’t seen on-ice fights until last night, and didn’t really know how to conduct himself during pre-game warm-ups.

Even so, there are those positive moments, and early feedback – including from Julien himself – that Kotkaniemi’s skating might be better than advertised.

So, would the Canadiens (and Kotkaniemi) be better off if the Finnish forward makes an immediate jump to the NHL, or would it be better if he continued to polish his game before burning off a year from his entry-level deal?

Well, it’s complicated.

Center of attention

On Monday, Kotkaniemi basked in the thrill of being the apple of the crowd’s eye.

Still, if we’ve noted anything about hockey-obsessed markets, it’s that the “honeymoon period” can be short-lived in a place like Montreal. Growing pains are probable whenever a young player makes the jump, yet throwing Kotkaniemi into the deep end right off the bat could only expose a lack of polish that much more.

Such a decision would run the risk of shaking Kotkaniemi’s confidence.

There’s another factor not unlike Filip Zadina possibly soothing some pain in Detroit: a reasonably productive and promising Kotkaniemi could give Canadiens fans a sorely needed bright side to look on. The Max Pacioretty trade – not to mention picking third – sent at least a partial rebuild message, so if 2018-19 is as rough on the ice as it is on paper, it might be nice to glimpse some of the light at the end of the tunnel.

The bottom line is that, at some point, the pressure will really rise on Kotkaniemi to be the Canadiens’ long-sought-after high-end center. Considering how short the fuse can be when it comes to Marc Bergevin assessing a player’s usefulness in that regard, it could be a cruel test for the Finn.

Cautionary tales

The modern NHL treasures speed, skill, and smarts. Sometimes that translates into young players managing instant success, as we saw with Nico Hischier being a quick study after a splendid jump from being the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

There are some examples of the immediate jump going wrong, or at least being handled poorly, and you can look at some recent third picks as warnings for Montreal.

Alex Galchenyuk – Like Kotkaniemi, Galchenyuk was a could-be center (and could be one in Arizona) who Montreal selected third overall. In the case of “Chucky,” it was the third pick in 2012.

Galchenyuk jumped right from that 2012 draft to the 2012-13 season, at least once the lockout dissipated. He played in all 48 regular-season games (and five playoff contests), acquitting himself quite nicely.

Yet, patience wasn’t in great supply for the talented forward, as Bergevin shut the door emphatically on Galchenyuk’s bid to be a center, and the atmosphere sure felt toxic pretty quickly.

Would Galchenyuk’s game been more well-rounded if he didn’t make the jump right away? Was stepping from the draft to the pressure cooker of Montreal hockey an example of “too much, too soon?”

In my opinion, it’s absurd to look at Galchenyuk as a failure. That said, the Canadiens failed to handle his situation properly, and it’s unclear if Bergevin & Co. truly learned from their mistakes. Rushing Kotkaniemi into the NHL could end up being an unpleasant example of history repeating.

Jesse Puljujarvi – While Kotkaniemi was a mild surprise in rising to the third pick, plenty were surprised that fellow Finn Puljujarvi slipped below the third choice, instead going fourth overall in 2016.

It’s far too early for this to be a permanent judgment, but at the moment, the Blue Jackets’ bold decision to go with Pierre Luc-Dubois instead may end up being the correct call.

Either way, it’s been a bumpy ride for Puljujarvi, and a considerable portion of the blame falls on the Edmonton Oilers, an organization that hasn’t exactly developed the greatest track record of handling all but the most can’t-miss of prospects. (They haven’t messed up Connor McDavid, although they’ve blundered spectacularly when it comes to giving him help.)

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

Puljujarvi burned a year off his entry-level contract by making an immediate jump in 2016-17, a move that proved to be ill-fated, as he was demoted to the AHL. He’s spent the past two seasons going between the AHL and NHL, with some legitimate concerns about stunted growth.

Even if Puljujarvi pulls out the sort of season that would justify his draft placement, the Oilers have already squandered most of his rookie contract. Edmonton’s essentially written the blueprint on how not to handle Kotkaniemi in the form of his countryman Puljujarvi.

The North American Game

Although the above scenarios inspire some fear of mishandling Kotkaniemi, the Habs could theoretically see some advantages in keeping him around, even if his 2018-19 season isn’t a smash success.

As mentioned before, Kotkaniemi hasn’t experienced much exposure to the North American game. The Canadiens might reason that he’d be better off not returning to Finland for this next campaign, then.

***

With plenty of cap space and a lot of forwards under contract (according to Cap Friendly’s listings), it’s not as though the Canadiens badly need to get solid production from a cheap rookie contract. If expectations are as low in-house as they are on the streets of Montreal, then sliding the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level deal to 2019-20 might be a lot more prudent.

Overall, there are some notable pros and cons to Kotkaniemi making the immediate jump, so the Canadiens better look before they leap.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Kane’s streak hits 19 games

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Three Stars

1. Anthony Mantha

This edition of three stars will consolidate a would-be top six into three. Go ahead and play some thematic Judas Priest.

While the Red Wings fell 5-4 in a shootout to the Blackhawks, Mantha was the most impressive part of a great effort by Detroit’s top scorers. Mantha generated a whopping four assists, also firing a robust seven shots on goal. The massive winger’s really been assertive lately, as he’s fired 20 SOG in his past three games. Even Alex Ovechkin thinks Mantha’s being a handful for goalies, right?

(As a bonus, three of Mantha’s four assists were primary ones.)

Dylan Larkin probably ranks as the real second star, but let’s just mention him in the Mantha entry. Larkin scored two goals and one assist, and actually topped Mantha with nine SOG. Lakin now has 58 points in 60 games, leaving him just five away from last season’s career-high of 63.

Andreas Athanasiou rounded out that dominant output from that top Red Wings line with two goals, including the one that sent that game to OT.

2. Carl Soderberg

You have to grasp straws to make much of a difference between the most productive Avs of the night, as both Soderberg and Tyson Jost enjoyed one-goal, two-assist Wednesday evenings as Colorado crushed Winnipeg 7-1.

Soderberg’s numbers are slightly better, though. Soderberg’s plus/minus (+4) was one up from Jost’s +3, and Soderberg fired five SOG to Jost’s 3.

If the likes of Soderberg and Jost can take the heat off of top scorers Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog, that the Avalanche become pretty scary. (That combo was pretty deadly in their own right on Wednesday, though.)

3. Erik Gustafsson

It’s tempting to name Patrick Kane as the third star of the night, at least while “Breaking the Law” here with actually-a-more-than-top-three.

Let’s consider this the last double-starring, then, because Gustafsson generated more points (three, all assists), while Kane scored two nice goals, including a swaggery OT-winner.

We’ll get deeper into Kane’s honestly kind of mindblowing achievements later on, so this seems like a nice opportunity to note that the Blackhawks have unearthed another gem in Gustafsson. The 26-year-old somehow has 41 points in just 58 games this season. While his 12 goals come from some luck (11.4 shooting percentage, which is very high for a defenseman), you can also clearly see that he’s a slick, creative player.

Gustafsson’s assist on Kane’s OTGWG illustrates that, so enjoy these highlights:

The Swede is now the first European-born defenseman in Blackhawks history to break the 40-point barrier in a single season.

Highlight of the Night

The Nate Schmidt goal that sent Bruins – Golden Knights into OT probably takes the cake for the best goal of Wednesday, but enjoy the full highlights of that game for your trouble:

Questionable hit

Should Cal Clutterbuck receive supplementary discipline for this hit?

Factoids, Kane on fire edition

Patrick Kane didn’t just extend his point streak to 19 games, he did it with aplomb. Kane scored two goals against the Red Wings, including the overtime game-winner.

When you think of a 19-game point streak, you probably picture quite a few games where a player barely gets there, like having one hit during an epic baseball streak. Instead, Kane keeps knocking it out of the park; he has an astounding 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points. That’s more than he managed during a longer 26-game point streak earlier in his career, when he managed 40.

There are other ways to break up Kane’s red-hot streak. He also has an 18-game road point streak going; only six different players have enjoyed longer road-runs.

Kane’s now at 350 goals for his career, and his 920 points is the most for a U.S.-born player through their first 12 seasons.

Scores

CHI 5 – DET 4 (OT)
COL 7 – WPG 1
CGY 4 – NYI 2
BOS 3 – VGK 2 (SO)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins increase chances of home-ice with 7th win in a row

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The Boston Bruins are pushing to begin the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs with home-ice advantage, likely against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even if that doesn’t pan out, at least the Bruins have been red-hot on the road, too.

It wasn’t easy, but the Bruins made their four-game road trip a perfect one by slipping by the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in a shootout. This pushes the Bruins’ current winning streak to seven games, and they’ve also generated at least one point in 12 consecutive contests.

Boston generated two one-goal leads in Wednesday’s game, but the pace was often frenetic, and the Golden Knights refused to go down without a fight. This splendid Nate Schmidt goal sent the contest beyond regulation:

The Bruins were whistled for a too many men on the ice penalty during the overtime period, but Patrice Bergeron made some key plays and Jaroslav Halak cleaned up the rest to force the contest to what would end up being a lengthy shootout.

Ultimately, the Bruins won, and strengthened their lead over Toronto for the Atlantic’s second seed, although the Maple Leafs hold games in hand.

Bruins: 36-17-8, 80 points in 61 games, 34 ROW
Maple Leafs: 36-19-4, 76 points in 59 GP, 36 ROW

The Maple Leafs would need to win their two games in hand to tie the Bruins from a points perspective, while they’d lead in ROW even if both of Toronto’s wins came via shootouts. That could very well happen, but this Bruins surge certainly increases the odds of a potential Game 7 taking place in Boston instead of Toronto. For all we know, that could make an impact on what is setting up to be a fantastic first-round series.

Boston made a significant tweak on Wednesday by trading Ryan Donato and a conditional fifth-rounder for Charlie Coyle, possibly strengthening their depth in the process. This outcome reminds the hockey world that they’ve been pretty outstanding even when their top-end players have to do most of the heavy lifting.

More on that Coyle – Donato trade.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres GM fires down talk of firing coach Housley

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Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill gave head coach Phil Housley the “vote of confidence” on Wednesday.

In an interview with reporters including The Buffalo News’ Mike Harrington and The Athletic’s John Vogl, Botterill said that he is not looking to make a coaching change.

“We’ve made progress as an organization compared to last year. We’ve been in a position where we’ve been in games,” Botterill said. “I see the results on the ice. I see the communication that we’re going through here. There’s not going to be a coaching change.”

No doubt about it, there are Sabres fans who are frustrated with a team that looks like it will see a playoff drought extend to eight seasons. Buffalo also hasn’t won a playoff series since 2006-07, having lost in the first round in their two postseason appearances since.

Still, Housley hasn’t exactly had a ton of time to turn things around.

That 10-game winning streak and brief spell at the top of the NHL’s standings raised expectations, so seeing Buffalo trail eight-seed Columbus by six points stings. It’s probably not much comfort that the Sabres have already exceeded last season’s 62 points by generating 63 standings points in 59 games.

Such an improvement comes from a lowly point, no doubt, but it’s fair to argue that Housley might deserve one more season.

This is only Housley’s second campaign with the Sabres, and it’s tough to ignore the instability this organization has struggled with. Housley joins Dan Bylsma, Ted Nolan, and Ron Rolston as the fourth coach the Sabres have hired since dismissing mainstay Lindy Ruff in 2013. Botterill’s also only been in place since 2017, so a big front office change would serve as a pretty sudden swerve.

On one hand, you don’t want to keep doing something that isn’t working, and plenty will argue that the Sabres would be guilty of exactly that if they stuck with Housley behind the bench.

On the other hand, when you look at some of the most troubled organizations in sports, a big chunk of them seem to keep changing regimes. For all the benefits that can come with new methods and voices, it can be rough on players, whether that means useful contributors getting shipped out for the sake of change, or merely incumbent players having to learn new systems and connect with new coaches.

With Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin leading the charge, there seems like some light at the end of the tunnel for Buffalo. Like it or not, it seems like Botterill is giving Housley more time to prove that he can be the vehicle who can transport this franchise out of that darkness.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Patrick Kane powers another Blackhawks win

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Patrick Kane is unstoppable right now, and he continues to bring the Chicago Blackhawks with him.

Chicago couldn’t have been happy to see a 4-1 lead evaporate into a 4-4 tie against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday. Overtime provided another opportunity for Kane to exert his dominance, though, as he netted the overtime game-winner.

Not a bad way for Mike Tirico to end his first NHL foray:

With that, Kane’s now on a 19-game point streak, and even if it was just for a little while, the Blackhawks climbed into a playoff spot. The Avalanche bumped them back out of the top eight by clobbering the Jets 7-1 later on Wednesday, but the difference is small enough that Chicago can gain some confidence.

With two goals, Kane’s ridiculous run is at a mind-boggling 16 goals and 26 assists for 42 points in those 19 games. That’s absurd stuff, even by the standards of this high-scoring season.

This isn’t his longest point streak ever, but it is Kane’s most explosive.

Kane’s now at a scorching 92 points in 60 games. Those 92 points stand as Kane’s second-highest ever, and with Chicago having 21 games remaining, his career-high of 106 from 2015-16 being in sight. The milestones continue to pile up, as Kane now sits at 350 career goals and eight OT tallies.

The Blackhawks improved to 26-26-9 on the season, giving them 61 points (25 regulation/overtime wins) in 61 games. The Blackhawks slipped back to outside the second wild-card spot, but the goal is within reach.

WC 1: Stars: 29-25-5, 63 points, 59 GP, 29 ROW
WC 2: Avalanche: 25-24-11, 61 points, 60 GP, 25 ROW

Blackhawks: 26-26-9, 61 points, 61 GP, 25 ROW
Wild: 27-27-6, 60 points, 60 GP, 26 ROW
Coyotes: 27-28-5, 59 points, 60 GP, 24 ROW
Canucks: 26-27-7, 59 points, 60 GP, 23 ROW
Ducks: 24-27-9, 57 points, 60 GP, 21 ROW

As you can see, the Avalanche have the same number of points and ROW, while holding a game in hand over Chicago. The Blackhawks also don’t have much of a buffer ahead of Minnesota, among the other bubble teams.

Even so, it’s pretty surreal that Chicago’s even in this spot, as they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games. You could say they’re almost as hot as Kane himself.

More: Could Blackhawks be a threat if they make the playoffs?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.