With another strong preseason showing on Wednesday night, Montreal Canadiens first-round pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi appears to be closing on an NHL roster spot.
Head coach Claude Julien stopped shy of making any promises in his post-game comments about the 18-year-old after a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but made it clear Kotkaniemi has a strong chance to be on the roster for next week's regular season opener.
"In Kotkaniemi's case, right now it's pretty hard not to see him on our roster. The way he's played, the way he's handled himself," Julien said, per NHL.com. "I'm the coach, and we have management, and we'll sit together and make that final decision obviously after Saturday's game [in Ottawa], but he's shown us a lot of good things and it's pretty hard not to see him with our group."
Kotkaniemi had one assist and a plus-1 rating against the Leafs Wednesday, bringing his preseason totals to one goal, three points and a plus-5 rating. He matched up regularly against Auston Matthews.
“It was either that or send him out against [John] Tavares,” said Julien. “He was on one of our top two offensive lines and he had to face one of those guys.”
As TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger said Thursday morning, the Canadiens could elect to keep the centre on their roster for the first nine games of the season and then decide whether to allow him to play game No. 10 and burn the first year of his entry-level contract.
Dreger noted that the next number to watch would then be Game 39, as appearing in 40 games would allow the Finn to count the year towards unrestricted free agency.
The Canadiens elected to keep 2016 fourth-round pick Victor Mete on their roster past the nine-game mark last season and while the team did loan him to Team Canada for the world juniors, he wound up appearing in 49 games.
“He keeps going up and up,” Mete said Wednesday of Kotkaniemi. “I think he’s played four or five games and that’s helped him a lot. It was the same for me last year. I wanted to play a lot and stay in it.”
Selected third overall in June's draft, Kotkaniemi had 10 goals and 29 points in 57 games last season playing with Assat in Finland's Liiga. He added three goals and nine points in seven games at the under-18 world juniors.