What the Puck: Kotkaniemi an example of Habs’ poor drafting, development


Passing on Senators star Brady Tkachuk in favour of Jesperi Kotkaniemi is looking like another mistake by Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins.

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The curious case of Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the perfect metaphor for all that is wrong with the 21st-century Canadiens. There’s been a debate for years whether the Habs’ woes are due to the fact the team drafts poorly or develops poorly or both.

What the Kotkaniemi story underlines is that Montreal actually drafts and develops badly. At least they’re consistent.

The sad truth is that general manager Marc Bergevin and head of scouting Trevor Timmins made a mistake at the 2018 draft by picking Kotkaniemi third overall. Maybe in two years, we’ll all revise that opinion. But with the facts we have in front of us, it is impossible to conclude anything other than the fact that Brady Tkachuk, who was picked fourth by the Ottawa Senators, was a much better choice.

In Thursday’s embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Sens, Tkachuk did what he always does against the Habs. He had a very good game. He played 17:20, scored a goal, had a plus-1 differential and notched seven hits. Kotkaniemi played 11:28, had no points, was minus-2 and had three hits. Tkachuk was a factor, KK wasn’t.

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It is almost the end of Kotkaniemi’s third season with the Canadiens and the jury is in on those three seasons; they haven’t been very good. His rookie season was his best, with the young Finn scoring 11 goals and posting 34 points. But that was mostly thanks to a strong start. The second half of the season was brutal. Speaking of brutal, that’s a good way to describe his second season, with his poor play leading to him being demoted to the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

He was good in the playoff bubble last summer, but he’s been a disappointment this season. He hasn’t scored for 20 games and has only five goals and 20 points with four games to go. Some will respond by saying that Phillip Danault also has only has five goals. Danault is also having a disappointing season, but at least his lack of offensive production is at least partly compensated by his stellar defensive play. You can’t say that about Kotkaniemi.

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He is not a first-round bust like other Bergevin/Timmins picks — duds like Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak. But it looks like the wrong choice.

If Kotkaniemi continues to struggle, it will be the second No. 3 overall pick by Bergevin/Timmins that fizzled. The first was the failure that is Alex Galchenyuk, picked third in 2012, at Bergevin’s first draft as GM.

This brings us to the issue of Montreal’s inability to develop players. Galchenyuk had raw talent. He scored 30 goals one season for Montreal. Some of his problems are self-inflicted, but it didn’t help that he was immediately hyped as the centre who would take the Habs to the promised land.

Then Bergevin began denigrating him in public, saying he was clearly not good enough to be a centre. He was poorly developed, like Kotkaniemi.

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The trouble with Montreal managers, and this predates Bergevin, is they manage via public opinion. In 2018, Bergevin needed a saviour to silence the critics and the saviour was an 18-year-old Finnish kid who wasn’t ready for prime time.

He should’ve spent another year in Finland or gone to hone his chops in Laval. But they needed him to stave off the critics. Sound familiar? That’s what they’re doing with Cole Caufield, but he’s 20 and has two years of NCAA hockey under his belt.

But once again the hype is insanely out of control. He has yet to score a five-on-five goal, but fans talk about him like he’s Auston Matthews. I am hugely optimistic about Caufield, but there’s too much hyperbole and that is fuelled by the Canadiens’ marketing folks.

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How bad is the Canadiens’ development strategy in general? Look at the Habs lineup in Ottawa last night and name me a player drafted and developed by the Canadiens who is a clear-cut success story. You can’t say Caufield or Alexander Romanov because it’s too early in their careers.

So who else is there? Artturi Lehkonen? I rest my case. If you point to Lehkonen as an example of the team’s development program working, that’s pretty sad. The really damning thing is how few players there are on the roster who were actually drafted and developed by the team.

The only success stories I can think of are Brendan Gallagher, who is on the injured reserve list, and Carey Price. Nine years into the Bergevin/Timmins regime, there is not one player you can point to that this not-so-dynamic duo has drafted and developed and that you can definitely say is a success in the NHL. This is not good.

bkelly@postmedia.com

twitter.com/brendanshowbiz

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