This past fall, Jesperi Kotkaniemi started off as a quiet favorite for those of us who pay attention to draft prospect. Now, he’s become the fastest rising player in the draft class and a guy most fan bases are clamoring over. At only 17-years of Age, Kotkaniemi has already finished a full season of professional hockey in Finland’s top league. Not only is he already playing professional hockey, he is doing so at a level that compares favorably to players that are having success in the NHL at a young age.
Comparing Kotkaniemi to Mikko Rantanen might seem lazy, but it makes a lot of sense. In his draft year, Rantanen played 56 games in SM-Liiga while scoring 9 goals and adding 19 assists. This past season, Kotkaniemi had 10 goals and 19 assists over 57 games in the same league. The difference between the two is that Kotkaniemi is doing it a full season before Rantanen. As a late birth date in the draft class, Kotkaniemi
The Finnish player is a goal-scorer, a playmaker, a powerplay quarterback and a penalty killer. We say all the time that players can perform in “all situations”, but that is particularly true about Kotkaniemi. When it comes to scoring goals, his quick release is his greatest attribute. Not unlike Auston Matthews, he has the ability to carry the puck into unlikely scoring areas, and then beat the unsuspecting goalie with a quick wrist shot.
He is a skilled puck-handler and he uses his stickhandling to buy himself time while looking for teammates. When playing internationally against guys his own age, he has show the strength necessary to carry the puck through traffic, particularly through the neutral zone.
His strengths go well beyond his play with the puck. Kotkaniemi is a very strong two-way player. With his pro team, he played mostly on the wing and didn’t get a lot of shorthanded time - this is almost certainly because of his age and lack of physical maturity. When he plays internationally with Finland, Kotkaniemi has filled the role as the 1C as well as the lynch-pin of the first penalty-kill unit.
When looking for a weakness in his game, some will point to his skating. Kotkaniemi skates in a bit of a hunched-over stance and doesn’t have the best top-end speed. That said, he has great edge-work and is a very agile skater. He’s not slow and very strong on his skates, so while his skating is what keeps him from being a top-3 pick in this year’s draft class, it’s still well above average.
What the scouts are saying
“Alert and versatile forward with good speed and a wide range of attributes who has performed well beyond expectations as a 17-year-old playing key minutes in Finland’s top league. Kotkaniemi comes across as a smart, clean player with or without the puck and can play either center or wing. He is used on the penalty kill and in late-game situations, showing defensive prowess regardless of the job he’s assigned.” - Steve Kournianos - The Draft Analyst
Kotkaniemi is a strong two-way center that manages his own zone well and creates offensive chances…solid skater with good all-round mobility…not the fastest off the mark, but will get faster as he adds leg strength…quick, skilled hands with the puck…a strong playmaker not only because he puts the puck on his teammates blade, but more so because he possesses great puck poise and patience for the best option to present itself…he has a sneaky quick release and puts his shots on target…protects the puck in traffic and in tight spaces…has a tendency to get a little too individualistic at times and needs to consistently use his teammates to maximise his effectiveness…works hard each and every shift…gets into shooting and passing lanes to close off opportunities…willing to play the body to separate the puck or battle on the wall…defensively responsible…has very strong instincts and gets to the proper areas to both capitalize on a scoring chance as well as to break up a play defensively…solid in the face-off circle…still needs to fill out…has some solid upside as a big two-way center at the NHL level. - Future Considerations
Where he might get drafted
Early in the season, Kotkaniemi was being looked at as a guy that would be a steal for a playoff team drafting at the end of the first. Now, there is little doubt that he will be selected in the top half of the first round. He might even be the firs center taken in the draft. After an incredibly strong showing at the U18 World Championship this April, some have even started to suggest that he could creep up close to the top-5.