An unexpected youth movement: how the Canadiens is embracing its talentJesperi Kotkaniemi. Photo: David Kirouac/Icon Sportswirâe
Since the very first puck dropped on opening night, there’s been something different about the Montreal Canadiens.
With veteran defender – and captain! – Shea Weber and key checking line forward Jacob de la Rose both out with injuries to start the campaign, it had been a foregone conclusion coach Claude Julien would lean on his veteran players early. Make no mistake; even with Weber and de la Rose in the lineup, few out there had a favorable view of the Canadiens coming into the season. Carey Price hadn’t been Carey Price for years, the defense lacked for speed and the offense seemed to lack scoring power.
So when, just hours ahead of the Canadiens first game versus Toronto Maple Leafs, it was announced Tomas Plekanec, Nikita Scherbak and Karl Alzner would all sit in the press box as healthy scratches, it came as quite a surprise.
Instead of Alzner and Weber patrolling the blueline, Noah Juulsen (born 1997) and Victor Mete (1998) drew into the lineup. With no Jacob de la Rose, Tomas Plekanec or Nikita Scherbak at forward, a spot opened up for Finnish phenom Jesperi Kotkaniemi to make his NHL debut.
Coach Juliens move paid reasonable, if not outstanding, dividends.
Juulsen and Mete skated 20 minutes a piece and 2018 3rd overall pick Kotkaniemi picked up his first NHL point with an assist on Andrew Shaw’s game-tying 2-2 goal. Montreal ended up losing the game in overtime.
“I try to play brave out there and dish pucks to my teammates and I’ll continue to get better at that”, said the young Finn after making his debut.
Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
Photo: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Montreal faced Toronto on the road and just days after his first ever NHL game it was time for Kotkaniemi to experience Bell Centre for the first time, arguably an even bigger experience. One that his roommate, 20-year old Victor Mete, looks back at fondly:
“I think it will be special,” Mete told Montreal Gazette. “It was an unreal experience for me with the crowd getting into the kickoff to the season. I haven’t really talked to [Kotkaniemi]. He hasn’t asked me. Maybe he will, but I think he’ll find out by himself.”
“The three preseason games I played here were special and I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like in the first regular-season game”, Kotkaniemi told the same publication, just hours before the game.
Still, he hardly seemed fazed.
“Do I look nervous?”, he was quoted as saying.
Judging by his demeanor on the ice the answer to that question would be a resounding “No”. After winning just 14% of his faceoffs in the opener against Toronto, he bounced back against the Kings and posted an impressive 55% in the dot.
Although Kotkaniemi has yet to add to his point totals after his opening night assist, he’s been a responsible presence defensively for the Canadiens and has earned the 13:46 in average ice time he’s been entrusted by Claude Julien.
Mete and Juulsen has been similarly impressive, both skating 18 to 20 minutes a game. While none have picked up a point this season, it should just be a matter of time judging by their calm, veteran-like performance on the blueline.
A team that was in “win now”-mode just a few years ago with the Weber acquisition, Montreal was not expected to make much noise this season. The roster that was put on paper didn’t exactly scream Stanley Cup contender. Even so, general manager Marc Bergevin has continually maintained the club is not in a state of rebuilding as much as it is in a state of re-tooling.
Well, call it whatever you want.
In a theoretical rebuild, Mete, Juulsen and Kotkaniemi would all serve as excellent tools to build around. Since a rebuild is not what the Montreal Canadiens is doing (wink wink), let’s just refer to the calm and collected trio for what they are: something different.
For a club that has long leaned on veterans and been considered good but not great for years, perhaps different is the perfect way to move forward.