Getting Up to Speed With Kotkaniemi
Why is the Habs' center less than the sum of his skills?
“(Jesperi) Kotkaniemi isn’t the bad skater he is sometimes made out to be, but (he) still has work to do on his road to becoming a top centre for the Montreal Canadiens.”
Friend of the newsletter David St-Louis writes the above in an in-depth skating analysis of Montreal Canadiens center Jesperi Kotkaniemi three years ago. Since then MTL15 proves David correct. He breaks into the NHL right away but does not take the league by storm, either.
Kotkaniemi’s 62 points in 171 regular-season games is acceptable middle-six production, but represents an underwhelming total for a franchise cornerstone. His nine goals in 29 playoff games put him in select company, but that production is the byproduct of an unsustainably high 23.1% shooting percentage (MTL15 is an 8.0% shooter in the regular season).
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First off, I think MTL15 is a fine player. He’ll play in the league for a long time.
But how effective he is in that span, especially as a center, will be dependent on his ability to dictate the pace of the game.
To dictate a game of hockey requires leveraging speed:
The first three concepts are introduced by Soviet master coach Anatoly Tarasov.
Shouldering speed, the fourth and least-understood concept, is identified by skills coach Darryl Belfry. It refers to the quickness with which a player can transition from one skill to another.
Reducing the time it takes to transition from a crossover to a pass, for example, helps the player stay ahead of her opponents and create advantages. A player with mediocre skating and hand speed can therefore leverage her shouldering speed to complete plays under pressure.
Good shouldering creates a certain smoothness in movement, a trait that becomes more valuable at higher levels.
Kotkaniemi’s skating stride is by no means perfect, but I would argue that his underwhelming shouldering speed represents his biggest growth opportunity.
By better blending his upper and lower-body movements within his puck touches, MTL15 will bolster his skating, hand and mind speeds, add deception to his game and finally become a true top-six center in the NHL.
Clip 1: Shouldering speed in transition
On his first touch at the DZ right half-wall, MTL15’s weight is centered and he is unable to get off the wall before making a pass, demonstrating a lack of shouldering speed. However he uses his hand and mind speed to make a quick and accurate change of side pass to MTL28.
MTL15 sprints up-ice and gets a return pass at the offensive blue line. Again he shows a lack of shouldering speed, as his centered backhand reception requires him to expose the puck and gather himself before moving onto his next move, a sharp turn into the middle of the ice and a second change-of-side pass to MTL28.
In this sequence MTL15 makes two timely and accurate play, but without the shouldering speed or subtle dynamism of a top forward.
Clip 2: The role of the upper body
MTL15’s shouldering speed issues are not totally divorced from his skating technique.
The clip below illustrates the root cause of his struggles to make plays at high speed.
Whether he’s carrying the puck, sprinting into space or turning sharply, MTL15’s lower body works extremely hard, but his upper body is mostly just along for the ride.
MTL15 doesn’t lead with an aggressive upper-body twist before digging in and changing directions with his lower half.
Consequently he appears jerky and disorganized rather than smooth and collected. And as we know, smoothness is quality we’re after when we looking for shouldering speed.
Clip 3: Speed, deception and success rates
At just 20 years of age, MTL15 is already a reliable two-way player. However as a former third-overall pick, his success as a Hab will most likely be judged by his offensive effectiveness.
So far MTL15 hasn’t established himself as a consistently dangerous creator.
In my eyes MTL15 is no slower and not any less skilled than MTL14 Nick Suzuki. Again it comes back to shouldering speed.
On his first touch MTL15 gets stuck and settles for a backhand hope play that nearly results in a turnover. Given an immediate chance for redemption, he attacks the middle and skates into a 1v3.
In such a situation, an elite center such as Mat Barzal or Brayden Point is able to problem-solve two defensive sticks at once (hand speed) while taking crossovers (skating speed) and scanning for teammates (mind speed). But most importantly they are able to more-or-less do all of those things concurrently (shouldering speed), which allows for deception.
Kotkaniemi is not that player yet.
He makes no attempt to disguise his intentions and stickhandles right into pressure, committing a second turnover.