Sunday, September 30, 2018

Habs Roll The Dice on Kotkaniemi, And So What?



  The last time the Montreal Canadiens had a first round pick on the season-opening October roster in his draft year goes all the way back to 1984, when Petr Svoboda took a regular shift as an 18 year old rookie. The circumstances were exceptional - and political. Svoboda was a Cold War defector from behind the Iron Curtain, so it’s not as if the Habs could have sent him back to Czechoslovakia, where Svoboda would have been summarily assigned to the Bourgeoisie Running Dogs of Gulag Archipelago League. The American Hockey League was an option, but a ridiculously deep Montreal blue line that included Larry Robinson, Rick Green, Chris Chelios, Ric Nattress and Craig Ludwig provided insulation sufficient enough that the Canadiens decided to keep Svoboda, who went on to enjoy a long and productive NHL career.
   Which brings us to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. For the first time since Svoboda 34 years ago, the Canadiens are going against conventional hockey wisdom and opening the season with their 2018 first round pick (third overall) on the NHL roster. Given Kotkaniemi’s excellent training camp, the hand-wringing over the decision has been relatively muted, with most of it coming from media “experts” regurgitating decades-old talking points about whether an 18 year old can hold up to the rigors of an 82 game schedule. I can only imagine what a farmer, coal miner or oil rig worker thinks when they hear about “the grind” of first class travel, star treatment and lucrative compensation to live a childhood dream. 
   That’s not to say the travel and the physical nature of the game don’t take a toll, and I understand the thinking behind giving young players more seasoning at the minor league level. But there are exceptions to every rule. Kotkaniemi looks NHL-ready, and the Canadiens have a nine game window to decide whether he’s mentally and physically equipped for the long haul. 
   This being Montreal, the obsession with how the Canadiens are handling Kotkaniemi is to be expected but it's still vastly overstated. Ultimately, only a handful of people have a substantial stake in whether Kotkaniemi succeeds at all: the player, his family and the team executives and coaches in charge of overseeing his development. No one else's life will be altered in any substantial way, whether his hockey career flourishes or he goes back to Finland and herds reindeer.  The media should be grateful for the story line, and all the rest of us have to do is sit back and enjoy the show. 

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