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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.

PHT Morning Skate: The issues in St. Louis; Schneider’s struggles

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• So how are things going with the St. Louis Blues? “We were terrible in the first period. Every player. Terrible.” [Post-Dispatch]

• Meanwhile, the Blues handed Robert Bortuzzo a three-year extension. [Blues]

• Seattle’s NHL arrival will only grow the already rich history of the sport in the community. [NHL.com]

• How Mikko Rantanen turned into one of the NHL’s top scorers. [Sportsnet]

• What’s next for struggling Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils? [NJ.com]

• This will be a fun headline to remember: “He’s baaaaack – Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli looking like the resident genius” [Edmonton Sun]

Mikko Koskinen has been quite a find for the Oilers. [TSN]

• Knee surgery will likely keep Erik Haula of the Vegas Golden Knights out for the remainder of the season. [Las Vegas Review-Journal]

• A lower-body injury will keep Mike Green out of the Detroit Red Wings’ lineup for the next 3-5 weeks. [MLive]

• A busted finger means the Oilers will be without Oskar Klefbom for the next 6-8 weeks. [Oilers Nation]

• The Vancouver Canucks appear to have some interest in Washington Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky. [NoVa Caps]

• Which NHL players are carrying the biggest offensive burdens for their teams? [ESPN.com]

• Some ideas on how to fix the New York Islanders power play. [Gotham Sports]

• The Guy Lafleur disco album is really something. [Punk Junk]

• Washington Capitals roll out welcome for the Black Girl Hockey Club’s first meeting. [Color of Hockey]

• Injuries have really put a damper on the Arizona Coyotes’ season. [Featurd]

• Finally, our good friend Gritty had a special Christmas message for ESPN’s Katie Nolan:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Bruins can’t handle Eichel; Jets beat Bolts

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Three Stars

1. Jack Eichel

Remember when people were really worried about Jack Eichel receiving $10 million per season? (Cups ears.) Hmm, not hearing much of that these days.

Eichel gave the Bruins more than they can handle on Sunday, collecting two primary assists (including a beauty on Jeff Skinner‘s game-winner) and two goals to help Buffalo beat Boston. He was really all over the place in this one, firing six shots on goal, enjoying a +3 rating in what was mostly a tight contest.

Buffalo’s captain now has 14 goals and 45 points in 34 games in 2018-19. A healthy portion of that total came during this current six-game point streak, as Eichel has nine goals and four assists for 13 points during that span.

The win was notable for the Sabres, as they at least briefly passed Toronto for second in the Atlantic.

Skinner’s two goals give him 24 for this season, matching last year’s total in just his 34th game of 2018-19.

2. Mark Scheifele

Once you go beyond Eichel, you really start splitting hairs, as there were a lot of three-point games on Sunday.

One tough call is Scheifele vs. his Jets linemate Nikolaj Ehlers. After all, while Scheifele’s three points came from one goal and two assists, Ehlers grabbed two goals and one assist. Under certain circumstances, you’d go Ehlers.

Scheifele assisted on Ehlers’ second goal, which sent the game into overtime. Scheifele then cleaned up a loose puck created by a nice drive to the net by Patrik Laine, ending the game with an overtime game-winner. It’s his second consecutive game with an OT-clincher, apparently.

It sounds like Scheifele has a knack for these situations.

3. Brent Burns

When in doubt, make a significant milestone a tiebreaker. Burns is a rare breed even when you ignore the notion that he could nest baby birds in his beard:

Brent Burns generated three assists as the Sharks took down the Blackhawks on Sunday. With that, he now has 600 points in his career. One can only imagine how many points Burns would have if he had blossomed earlier/a coach as smart as Peter DeBoer came along sooner and optimized his unique set of skills earlier. (His stats with Minnesota vs. San Jose are resoundingly stark, and he really started to get monster minutes around the time DeBoer took over, though Todd McLellan did get that started.)

Other highlights

Maybe a 48-save game wasn’t enough for Andrei Vasilevskiy? The Lightning’s ultra-talented goalie earned a second assist on Sunday, and it’s one of the primary reasons this is such a fun highlight. Just a fantastic goalie-pass:

If Linus Ullmark pans out like Buffalo hopes, opponents better watch out for the Sabres.

More Factoids

Marc-Andre Fleury continues to climb the list of all-time wins for goalies.

In case you’re wondering, Jacques Plante ranks eighth all-time with 437 wins.

Few teams can match the Flames’ top-end talent, and this Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk stat really drives that point home. Gaudreau’s one of those players who had three points on Sunday, by the way.

Scores

VGK 4 – NYR 3 (OT)
CAR 3 – ARI 0
CGY 7 – STL 2
BUF 4 – BOS 2
SJS 7 – CHI 3
WPG 5 – TBL 4 (OT)
VAN 4 – EDM 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Will Flyers’ disastrous road trip spell end for Hakstol?

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To put things mildly, there are a lot of reports and rumors revolving around the Philadelphia Flyers possibly firing Dave Hakstol to make Joel Quenneville their new head coach.

With a lot of conflicting information in the air (things do seem dire for Hakstol in most scenarios), let’s consider how the Flyers got to this point.

Terrible road trip

Look, the Flyers weren’t exactly setting the world on fire before the disastrous five-game road trip, which concluded on Saturday with a 5-1 thumping by the Vancouver Canucks.

Optics obviously matter, though, and things really devolved as this went along.

After beating the Sabres 6-2 on Dec. 8, the Flyers suffered a four-game losing streak, only managing a single standings point in a 6-5 OT loss to Calgary on Dec. 12.

Three of those four losses were absolute blowouts; Philly fell 7-1 to the Jets on Dec. 9, then really stunk up the joint during the last two losses, falling 4-1 to the Oilers on Friday and 5-1 to the Canucks on Saturday. There was little denying the negative feelings about that team, and Hakstol drew a lot of the blame for seemingly tepid efforts.

After scrapping their way to a somewhat surprising berth in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Flyers currently sit last in the Eastern Conference with 28 points in 31 games (12-15-4).

Good and the bad

If there’s one obvious tweak Hakstol made that produced huge dividends for the Flyers, it was moving Claude Giroux from center to the wing.

Heading into 2017-18, there were serious concerns about Giroux. It seemed like his offense was slowing down, possibly pointing to him hitting the dreaded low end of the aging curve. Instead, Giroux appeared to be liberated by the freedom of playing the wing, often ceding the center duties to Sean Couturier this season. Giroux enjoyed an MVP-like season, powering his way to career-highs of 34 goals and 102 points.

One can debate how Hakstol used younger players versus veterans. You could do that with many teams, not to mention other Flyers staffers, whether you’re pondering Carter Hart or, say, Travis Sanheim.

There have been some structural issues. Much like Todd McLellan in Edmonton, much of Hakstol’s tenure has been marked by a questionable strategy to lean heavily on shots from the point.

Sure, it’s nice to get the puck on the sticks of Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere when it makes sense, yet you’re far more likely to hit paydirt if you generate high-danger chances from the slot. Easier said than done? Yes, but some teams emphasize shots from defensemen to the detriment of creativity, making things too easy for the opposition.

The fall of a great power-play unit and a generally terrible PK might explain some of Hakstol’s struggles.

Since Hakstol came into the league in 2015-16, the Flyers’ PK unit has killed 77.1-percent of penalties, the worst mark in the NHL. If Quenneville or another coach could find answers where Hakstol and his crew failed, that could be a nice area of growth.

On the bright side, the Flyers have often had a deadly power play, although their overall mark (19 percent) under Hakstol is actually just tied at 17th.

Some of that might be tied up in Philly’s steps toward adding more talent over the years, but either way, that unit hit a big wall in 2018-19. They’ve connected on just 12.9-percent of their PP opportunities, the third-worst percentage in the NHL.

Hakstol didn’t sign the Flyers’ goalies, and it wasn’t his final call to opt against getting someone more established to compliment Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth. A new coach’s system could absolutely make life easier for whoever ends up in Philly’s net going forward, but that could still be an area of serious concern.

A new coach – if the Flyers were to make such a rumored change – might be able to install systemic changes that could help optimize this team. Some might come from finding more innovative special teams strategies, or maybe tweaking personnel decisions. Leaning on different players in different situations may also move the needle.

It’s not necessarily a matter of Hakstol being a terrible head coach, but rather that there could be areas of improvement.

Granted, the Flyers have dug themselves a big hole, so if they’re making changes, they might want to keep their expectations in check.

Big decision coming Monday, and more later this week?

Working past the understanding that people have been wondering about Hakstol for a long time, and beckoning for Coach Q to take over in Philly basically the second he was fired, things seemed to escalate on Sunday. Business picked up as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac reported that the Flyers would make that decision. Things got blurry from there, with TSN’s Darren Dreger describing the situation as “status quo” and that “no decision has been made.” Crossing Broad’s Anthony SanFilippo reports that Hakstol’s firing could be announced “within 24 hours,” but an interim coach may be named, possibly because there might be some wrinkles to iron out with Quenneville. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sam Carchidi backs that up, noting no change officially happening Sunday night, yet to expect a “busy” Monday.

Maybe some of this comes down to semantics (official versus looming?), it all seems a touch odd, and a bit confusing.

A lot to take in, right? PHT will keep you updated, whether Monday ends up being busy or just … awkward for Hakstol and the team, if nothing is actually happening. Buckle up.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Blackhawks’ Corey Crawford leaves game with concussion

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As the hockey world wonders what’s going on with former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville (is something happening with Philly?), Chicago worries about more immediate concerns.

Sunday’s game between the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks already began as a tough one for goalies, as Martin Jones was eventually pulled after allowing three goals, including two on Chicago’s first two shots. The night is rougher for Crawford, however, as he left the contest late in the first period after a very hard collision involving Blackhawks teammate Dylan Strome.

Crawford isn’t that far removed from vertigo and other issues that prompted at least some concerns about his career being in jeopardy, so seeing his head hit the post so hard was very disconcerting:

Afterward, the Blackhawks announced Crawford had suffered a concussion.

“Crow is such a big part of our team,” said defenseman Connor Murphy. “To lose him is not good. You just feel for him. In a game like that where there were parts where our goalie is hung out to dry and then for them to take guys crashing on him is not fair either.”

Some have wondered about the Blackhawks possibly hitting the “reset” button by trading Crawford (among others), yet you wonder if other GMs would be worried about health challenges.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.