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Canadiens' Kotkaniemi logging lots of ice time in Finland

Montreal Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi keeps his eye on the puck in linesman Travis Toomey's hand during faceoff against the San Jose Sharks in Montreal on Oct. 24, 2019.
Montreal Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi keeps his eye on the puck in linesman Travis Toomey's hand during faceoff against the San Jose Sharks in Montreal on Oct. 24, 2019.

Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi should be in great shape when — and if — the NHL resumes play for the 2020-21 season.

Kotkaniemi is back home in the Finnish town of Pori and he’s seeing lots of ice time with Assat, the local entry in the Finnish Liiga.

The rangy centre has played two games and is still looking for his first point, but he is proving that he’s capable of playing big minutes. In his first game, he led all forwards with ice time of 20:24. In a 3-2 shootout win over Vaasan Sport on Tuesday, he was on the ice for 21:28.

And the Liiga offers an interesting statistic that indicates Kotkaniemi spends a lot of time moving his feet. The Liiga keeps track of how much ice a skater covers during the course of a game. In his first game, Kotkaniemi covered a game-high 5.2 kilometres. On Tuesday, he skated for 5.65 kilometres.

Those numbers are important. It’s unlikely Kotkaniemi will see 20 minutes of ice time in the NHL this coming season but, if he’s going to play in the top six, he must play more than the 14 minutes he averaged during the playoffs this year.

There were a couple of things that stood out while watching the live stream from Finland Tuesday. For starters, Kotkaniemi has picked up where he left off in the playoffs in terms of his physical play. He was heavier and stronger when he returned to the Canadiens this summer and he has used his strength to good advantage in his first two games in Finland. He’s an aggressive forechecker and appears more comfortable along the boards.

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He showed that in his first game on the weekend when he won a battle behind the net and came close to scoring on a wraparound. While he hasn’t registered a point, he had nine shots in his first two games while adjusting to new teammates and reacquainting himself with the larger European ice surface.

Faceoffs continue to be an area of concern. Kotkaniemi won 63 per cent of his draws in his first game, but only 25 per cent on Tuesday. It might be too soon to assess this part of his game because there are bound to be adjustments to be made in terms of timing, how the linesmen drop the puck and how the faceoff rules are enforced.

Kotkaniemi is back home on a loan and it will be interesting to see how long he remains in Finland. While it’s important for him to play, the Canadiens also have to be aware that he is a 20-year-old who hit a wall during his first two seasons.

If the NHL is planning to start the new season in mid-January or early February and is intent on playing a full 82-game season, look for Kotkaniemi to play no more than 14 games in Finland and be back in Montreal by mid-December. That will give him time to quarantine if those rules are still in effect and be well rested for training camp.

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