It is so easy to forget how young they are. Nick Suzuki turned 21 Monday. Jesperi Kotkaniemi turned 20 July 6.
When Jaro Halak led the Canadiens through that heroic dash to the Eastern Conference final in the spring of 2010, Suzuki was ten years old and Kotkaniemi was still nine. When P.K. Subban and Carey Price did the same four years after, they were barely teenagers.
I know a couple of boys in that age group – and you wouldn’t entirely trust them to take the garbage to the curb, much less battle a team their way through playoff games in the NHL.
Yet here Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are, helping to lead a pretty good Canadiens team that ousted the Pittsburgh Penguins from the play-in round and gave the Philadelphia Flyers all they could handle Wednesday night in Toronto.
Boys to men, right in front of our eyes. It’s most noticeable with Kotkaniemi, who seems an inch taller, 20 pounds heavier and infinitely more confident than the last time we saw him on the ice for the CH. I can never look at him without thinking “Bobby Smith” and while he may not be quite as tall, in every other way (especially the hockey smarts) he’s fit to wear Smith’s old number.
When the 2019-2020 season was put in mothballs by the pandemic, Suzuki was already making his mark in the NHL. If he wasn’t yet putting up huge numbers, it was obvious Suzuki belongs in the league. He’s smart, he’s fast and he possesses a sweet pair of hands. Nothing he has done since the restart is a surprise – he’s just doing more of it.
Kotkaniemi is another matter. The kid who played as an 18-year-old after being taken with the third choice in the 2018 draft had suffered through a ragged mess of an injury-plagued second season. He had been sent down to Laval, endured a spleen injury, and seemingly lost his way.
Had the Canadiens mishandled him by bringing him to the NHL too soon? Or had they blown another number 3 pick, as they did with Alex Galchenyuk?
The answers to those questions are no and no. Kotkaniemi played his way into the lineup in 2018 and held his own until he seemed to run out of gas a third of the way into the season. Not only is he a talent, he’s turning into a big, strong talent at a difficult position. He’s back now, and he’s back to stay.
These Flyers aren’t the Broad Street Bullies of the 1970s, maybe, but they’re big and strong and tough. Wednesday night, Kotkaniemi was backing down to no one. As anyone who ever dealt with Saku Koivu could tell you, Finns are tough. Kotkaniemi is no exception, and he’s almost two of Saku.
Nor does the youth in this organization stop with the two talented forwards who are already here. Sniper Cole Caufield turned 19 in January, defenceman Alexander Romanov (who should have been allowed to play this summer) is exactly six months older than Kotkaniemi.
They’re all part of an organization that is headed in the right direction. It was hard to believe that when the league shut down five months ago with the Canadiens 29 points behind the Bruins and mired in 24th place in the league. But throughout that messy regular season, I kept thinking that the club was better than what we were seeing.
By mid-March, like everyone else, I had given up. I couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with this edition of the CH but it was evident that something wasn’t clicking. In hindsight, it was simple: Carey Price wasn’t quite himself, the team had taken too many injuries up front and a couple of defencemen (notably Brett Kulak) weren’t nearly as good as they had been the season before.
Since the beginning of this odd post-season, however, Price has been superb, leading you to believe that he was banged up last winter. (It’s often happened with Price and we probably won’t know exactly what was going on until his career is over but injuries have clearly played a role in his slumps.)
Up front, the Canadiens are healthy again. Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin are key players – you can’t lose them all (along with Kotkaniemi) and be the same team. Gallagher is taking a fearful pounding out there (a friend of mine says the Flyers are kicking him around like a hacky-sack) but you know he’ll never quit.
Kulak has been noteworthy for his outstanding play. Healthy, the Canadiens are pretty good and getting better. They may even come back to take this series against the Flyers, even though Alain Vigneault is the master of the NHL when it comes to winning 2-1 games.
But the really encouraging bit is that they’re going to get better. Mr. Suzuki, Mr. Kotkaniemi and Mr. Romanov will see to that.