Canadiens rest Kotkaniemi, believe he ‘hit a bit of a wall’

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To some degree, the Montreal Canadiens making Jesperi Kotkaniemi a healthy scratch served as inspiration for people to rave about an uncanny rookie season.

The 18-year-old was already beating tough odds by going straight from being the third overall pick – and a slightly controversial pick in that – in the 2018 NHL Draft, all the way to becoming a regular for the Habs. But apparently he’s done a lot more than merely manage to stay in the lineup — until this point.

Evolving Wild went as far as to throw “Selke” around regarding Kotkaniemi.

And, it turns out that such comments look quite reasonable. You can see that Kotkaniemi has been beyond-his-years defensively from heat maps to strong possession numbers, even on a Canadiens team that’s been pretty adept at hogging the puck.

When you consider how sturdy Kotkaniemi has been defensively, 32 points in 66 games goes from acceptable to downright impressive.

Actually, it’s to the point that it might be fair to wonder if Claude Julien’s making the right call in scratching Kotkaniemi for Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings. After all, Montreal doesn’t have much margin for error in The Playoff Push.

Julien explained the decision as a positive, stating that Kotkaniemi will get a chance to regain “momentum” after hitting a “bit of a wall.”

Julien doesn’t just see Kotkaniemi during games, but also during practices and other functions, so he likely has a better idea of the Finn’s energy levels than we do. The point about Kotkaniemi never playing this many games is certainly a reasonable one.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t seem like Kotkaniemi is struggling by all measures. If you look at this handy game log at Natural Stat Trick, you’ll see that he won the possession battle most of the time in recent games, often by significant margins.

It’s also noteworthy that Kotkaniemi isn’t exactly carrying a brutal workload, as he’s only averaging 14:04 TOI per game.

Despite those qualms, emphasizing rest is a good sign, and if Montreal’s going to get away with resting a useful player in any game, it would be against a team like the Kings. Also, if Julien is down on Kotkaniemi’s play, he’s doing a great job of concealing those thoughts, as his tone was very positive.

We can debate this smaller decision, but in the bigger picture, it’s remarkable to see Kotkaniemi pick up the defensive side of the NHL game so quickly. Hopefully the young center focuses more on his accomplishments than the disappointment of sitting out Tuesday’s game.

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.