Jesperi Kotkaniemi making case to stick with Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens have been dying for a number one center for over two decades. Many centers have come through Montreal, but very few have been able to stick. Sure, there was Saku Koivu, Mike Ribeiro, Tomas Plekanec and a few others, but the Habs have been one of the weakest teams in the league when it comes to depth down the middle. That might not be the case for much longer.

Enter Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

The one good thing about the Canadiens’ miserable 2017-18 season, is that they ended up with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. They used that selection to draft the Finnish product, who is a center. As excited as fans were about adding a center to the pipeline, many expected Kotkaniemi to head back to Finland after this year’s training camp.

After he struggled in his his first Rookie Showdown game against the Ottawa Senators at the beginning of the month, everyone was quick to point out that he was at least a year away from being a contributor at the NHL level. But once the preseason began and Kotkaniemi got to play with better players, he was able to elevate his game.

In his first exhibition game, the 18-year-old did this:

Even though he’s had success throughout the preseason, people were still split about keeping him in the NHL this season. So, when the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that they were coming to town with their A-lineup last night, everyone pointed to this game as a kind of measuring stick for Kotkaniemi’s ability to play in North America.

With Max Domi still out because of a suspension, Kotkaniemi got to center the top line with Jonathan Drouin on his left and Artturi Lehkonen on his right. Going up against Auston Matthews for most of the night, the kid did alright. It’s abundantly clear that he needs to get stronger, but it’s also obvious that he has the hockey sense to play in the NHL right now. He’s capable of playing effective hockey with and without the puck, which is pretty impressive for a player that just turned 18.

He also helped set up this Brendan Gallagher goal by making a nice pass to Victor Mete:

After the game, it was obvious that head coach Claude Julien was impressed with the way the rookie performed.

“In Kotkaniemi’s case, right now it’s pretty hard not to see him on our roster the way he’s played, the way he’s handled himself and all of that stuff,” Julien said after the game against Toronto, per Sportsnet. “I’m the coach, and we have management, and we’ll all sit together and make that decision obviously after Saturday’s game. But he’s showing us a lot of good things and it’s pretty hard not to see him with our group.”

The Canadiens have one preseason game remaining before they have to decide whether or not they’ll have Kotkaniemi on the opening-night roster. Even if they do keep him around, it’s just one of the hurdles he’ll have to climb to stick around all season. Once the campaign kicks off, he’ll have to show that he’s able to play at a high level on a nightly basis.

One thing is for sure, Julien, Marc Bergevin and the rest of the organization have an interesting decision to make in the coming days.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.