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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: Lightning dominate, Sabres rally and Gaudreau shines

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Three Stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. Point was a big part of the Lightning’s dominant offensive showing in Chicago on Sunday night when they scored six goals and put 55 shots on goal. Point was a factor in three of those goals, scoring one of them and assisting on two others to give him five goals and eight total points on the season. We know the Lightning have superstars at the top of the lineup, but it is the emergence of secondary players like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Point himself over the past four years that have made this team such a force in the Eastern Conference.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. With Mike Smith struggling in the early part of the season could backup David Rittich start to steal some playing time away from him? He has certainly made a strong case for himself over his past two starts, including Sunday’s game in New York where he stopped 43 out of 44 shots in a 4-1 Flames win. In his two starts this season he has now stopped 67 out of 70 shots.

3. Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres ruined the Ducks’ celebration of Paul Kariya on Sunday night by scoring four consecutive goals to erase what was a two-goal deficit midway through the second period. Kyle Okposo started the rally with his first goal of the season late in the period, and then helped complete when he set up Rasmus Ristolainen‘s game-winning goal early in the third period. Okposo had recorded just three assists in his first eight games before Sunday, so it was a much-needed big night for him on the scoresheet.

Ducks defense looks awful again

The Anaheim Ducks have been relying on their goalies — particularly starter John Gibson — more than any other team in the league this season, surrendering shots and chances at an unsustainable rate.

So far, Gibson has been able to keep them in it and steal a bunch of wins.

This weekend Gibson and Ryan Miller were not able to bail them out.

After getting outshot by a 45-18 margin in a 3-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night, they were outshot 45-28 in their 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. That is 90-46 over two games in 48 hours. That is … terrible.

They are giving up more than 37 shots on goal per game and have been outshot by a ridiculous margin on the young season.

This team looks like a house of cards teetering on the verge of a collapse if their goalies slip up even a little bit. This is, quite simply, not a good hockey team right now no matter what their record says.

Highlights of the Night

Johnny Gaudreau was a big part of the Flames’ win in New York on Sunday night by scoring a pair of goals, both of them coming on wonderful individual efforts. His second goal — which was also his 300th career point — was the best of the two.

The Lightning were dominant all night and it started very early with this slick Nikita Kucherov goal to put them on the board first.

He made that look easy.

Factoids

The Tampa Bay Lightning set an NHL record for most shots in a single period when they recorded 33 in the second period (we highlighted that here). They also set a franchise record for most shots on goal in a game.

The Calgary Flames won their first game at Madison Square Garden since 2008.

Scores

Tampa Bay Lightning 6, Chicago Blackhawks 3

Calgary Flames 4, New York Rangers 1

Buffalo Sabres 4, Anaheim Ducks 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Blackhawks’ defense still has long way to go

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The Chicago Blackhawks have been off to a better-than-expected start this season, especially when you consider they had Corey Crawford, arguably their most important player, for just two of their first seven games entering Sunday’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

That surprising start has been primarily due to Jonathan Toews‘ offensive resurgence, Alex DeBrincat‘s continued rise to stardom, and some good fortune in a bunch overtime/shootout games. They still have their flaws, particularly on their defense, and wow did a lot of those flaws get exposed on Sunday night against one of the league’s best teams.

The defense should have been viewed as the weak link on the roster heading into the season, and so far there has not been much to change that perception.

That is especially true after Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Entering Sunday’s game the Blackhawks were 26th in the NHL in goals against and 25th in terms of shots allowed per game. Neither number is anywhere close to good enough, and they are almost certain to be looking even worse after Sunday’s game that saw the Lighting set an NHL record and completely overwhelm the Blackhawks in a game that was not as close as the final score would indicate.

At times it looked like two teams playing two completely different sports.

Just consider these two numbers: 55 and 33.

What do those numbers represent?

The former is the number of shots on goal the Blackhawks surrendered to the Lightning for the entire game, while the latter is how many they gave up in the second period alone, setting an NHL record for most shots on goal in a single period. During that second period the Lightning outshot the Blackhawks by a 33-5 margin and outscored them 3-0. It was, to say the least, the difference in the game.

It also helped show just how far the Blackhawks’ defense has to go to make them a serious contender in the meatgrinder that is the NHL’s Central Division.

It is only the ninth time since the 2010 season that a team recorded 55 shots on goal in a game that did not go to overtime.

The Blackhawks have been trending in the wrong direction defensively (both from a shots and goals perspective) for several years now as that core on defense has gotten older or moved on to new teams. Once a team that dominated opponents territorially and never let them set up shop in their end, the Blackhawks are now a team that consistently bleeds shots and scoring chances against and needs its goaltenders to be great to have a chance.

There are several problems with the unit.

First, Connor Murphy has not played a singe game this season as he recovers from a back injury. He was probably one of the team’s best defenders a year ago and has been a major loss at the start of the year.

Gustav Forsling, who has shown promise over the past two years, has also not played yet this season due to a wrist injury.

When it comes to the players that are in the lineup there just isn’t enough high end talent here.

At the top you have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were cornerstone pieces of the Blackhawks’ mini-dynasty between 2010 and 2015, but are now on the wrong side of 33 and are a fraction of what they once were (especially Seabrook). Once you get beyond them there is just a stunning lack of quality depth as they have tried to piece together a makeshift unit of various veteran free agents like Jan Rutta, Brandon Mannning, Erik Gustafsson, and Brandon Davidson.

None of them are particularly great.

Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, has shown a ton of promise this season and is already playing some big minutes and being given a major role at the age of 19. But he’s still 19, and he’s going to have some growing pains at times and he had a particularly tough time on Sunday matching up against the Lightning.

Jokiharju and 2018 first-round pick Adam Boqvist are going to be the future of that unit, and the return of a healthy Murphy at some point should help at least a little bit in the short-term.

But they are probably a few years and a lot of help around them from being where they need to be as a unit. Even with the strong start to the season the Blackhawks’ best hope to contend this season is going to be continued strong play from their forwards and the return of a healthy and productive Corey Crawford.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ducks retire Paul Kariya’s No. 9

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Before the Anaheim Ducks played host to the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday night they honored the career of one of the best — and most important — players to ever wear their uniform by officially retiring Paul Kariya’s No. 9.

Kariya, the No. 4 overall pick in the 1993 draft, was the first player ever selected in the NHL draft by the franchise and quickly became the organization’s first superstar, playing nine seasons with the club between the 1994-95 and 2002-03 seasons. During his time with the Ducks he scored 300 goals and 369 assists (669 total points) in 606 games, and was a central figure in the team’s run to the 2002-03 Stanley Cup Final.

It was during that series where he was knocked out by New Jersey Devils defenseman Scott Stevens. Concussions and injuries would later derail his career and ultimately lead to his early retirement following the 2009-10 season.

He is among the top-five players in Ducks history in games played, goals, assists, and total points, while his 1.10 point-per-game average with the team is first in franchise history.

After playing for the Ducks he also spent time with the Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, finishing his Hall of Fame career with 402 goals and 989 points in 989 games.

His number is now in the rafters in Anaheim next to his longtime linemate and teammate, Teemu Selanne.

Prior to Sunday’s game all of the current Ducks players wore jerseys with the No. 9 on the back.

You can see highlights of the jersey retirement ceremony in the video above.

Later this season the Ducks will also retire Scott Niedermayer’s No. 27.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Maple Leafs looking for their ‘mojo’ after back-to-back losses

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“We got to get our mojo back.”

The sky is far from falling in Toronto, but Mike Babcock knows the secret of his Maple Leafs is finally out.

The Leafs dropped their second straight game for the first time this season on Saturday in a 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues.

That loss followed a 3-0 shutout defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, the first time Toronto’s dominant offense had been blanked this season.

There have been a few firsts over the past two games, but perhaps for every team in the league, there’s finally a blueprint out there on how to find success against Toronto.

The Leafs have constructed high-danger chance after high-danger chance since the start of the season (they’re third in the NHL with 92 of them) but over the past two games, they haven’t converted on any of them.

Toronto generated 20 high-danger opportunities over the two games but just couldn’t sort pucks into the back of the net in those contests.

Since getting zero goals off 20 chances over their first two games, Toronto had been on a tear, converting 10 goals off chances over their next five games in five-on-five scenarios.

In simpler speak, the likes of Auston Matthews and Co. haven’t been scoring at the same rates they were before their mini-slump here. The well has run dry when playing five-on-five right now and it’s been detrimental to Toronto’s success.

Babcock said after Saturday’s game that his team is finding out it’s hard to score in the NHL. And team’s adjust.

The better you are, the bigger the bullseye when another team takes the ice across from you. And the book on the Maple Leafs is that they’re fast, they transition well and they work well in space.

“The last couple nights, [we] haven’t won enough battles and races. You don’t feel very good about what’s going on,” Babcock told TSN on Sunday. “You have to get back to work, [and hopefully] let your ups be longer than your downs.”

Clog those lanes, play a little tighter and bog the game down seems to be doing the trick over the past two games.

Toronto’s schedule doesn’t get much easier with back-to-back games against the Winnipeg Jets in a home-and-home mini-series next week. The Jets won their second straight game for the first time this season and are beginning to find scoring from all four of their lines.

Winnipeg is a big and bruising team that can frustrate opposing offenses. Quickly righting the ship will be a stiff challenge in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck