The Curious Case of Jesperi Kotkaniemi
by Jason Paul
Montreal Canadiens fans are excited. The team is taking part in the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs with an intriguing mix of veterans and young, budding stars. But some fans are losing their sh#t because one of the team's prized up-and-coming player's development has seemingly taken a turn for the worse, with the word 'bust' starting to circulate on social media associated with Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
With many wild theories being bandied about on Twitter, let's take a look a some of the numbers to help us understand what's happening with the third overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
Who Am I Playing With Today, Coach?
Before we dig into the performance numbers, we first must understand how the young Finn is being deployed. You may often hear that the 'analytics community' doesn't pay too much attention to quality of competition because throughout the course of a game, even if a coach is trying to isolate a player, the rival coach will do his best to ruin these plans and generate his own favourable matchups. The majority of deployment is 'on-the-fly', as coaches battle to get the matchups they want.
A more important determinant of success is quality of linemate. It is for this reason there are many voices on Habs Twitter pointing to Kotkaniemi's linemates - both quality and stability - as reasons for his recently deteriorating performance.
The chart above shows what most Canadiens fans already know; that Kotkaniemi plays mostly with third-line-quality linemates, but also a significant time with many other players ranking at the level of second line to fourth line players, but rarely with the top three most used forwards on the team (number one being Nick Suzuki). (Kotkaniemi's icetime is shown in red bars, and the average NHL player is represented by the red line).
The time he spends against first line competition is below average; he is on the ice against the bottom of the opposition's lineup more than the average player. Among the team's centres, Kotkaniemi had the highest offensive zone start percentage 61.4% according to Naturalstattrick.com. (by comparison, Danault had the lowest at 39.6%).
All this adds up to a player being isolated, a hockey term used to describe a player who's deployment is managed carefully. I guess the real question is: why are the coaches deploying one of their prized assets this way?
Is Defence the Problem?
The short answer is no, defence is not the problem. A look at his heat map and details shows that the team - already very strong defensively at 2.14 xGA/60 - does better when he's on the ice with a very good 2.02 xGA/60.
Not so fast. The answer to that question - is defence the problem? - is a complex one. How does it look when we layer-in other considerations, like the quality of linemate and competition? Here's what the same chart looks like when taking into account those other factors. These charts show a three-year progression; the bottom portion is defensive impact. Blue represents fewer shots which is better on the defensive chart.
In his rookie season he had a strong impact on the defensive side of the game; but this season his impact has been negligible, but not bad; not nearly as bad as in the 2019-20 season.
What happens when Kotkaniemi is on the ice against elite competition? According to PuckIQ.com, even though the percentage of his ice time against this group is relatively low, he has performed well with a positive shot share and impressive goals for/against total, with eight goals for and only one against (on-ice statistics- data source PuckIQ.com)
This means he is 'losing the battle' against competition that matches or is inferior to the quality of his linemates. PuckIQ's data shows a negative outcome against the remaining level of competition with 16 goals for 21 goals against while Kotkaniemi is on the ice. The shot shares are good against this group, but the outcomes are not. This stings even more when you consider the offensive zone starts percentage is over 60% against this 'non-elite' group (according to PuckIQ).
So. Is defence a problem? Given his isolated deployment and favourable zone starts, I think the defensive numbers are good, but it's the scoring shares that may be of concern.
Scoring Is The Problem, Right?
The short answer is yes. As illustrated in the prior two sections, his quality of linemate is not at the first-line level, but he faces lower competition relative to the league. He also gets prime offensive-zone starts. Under these conditions he has delivered on defensive expectations, but underdelivered on the offensive side of the puck. From a coach's standpoint, those minutes against lower competition with offensive zone deployment represent a prime opportunity for the team to gain an advantage. With Kotkaniemi on the ice, it just hasn't happened enough this season.
Should all the blame fall on Kotkaniemi? No. He has five other teammates on the ice at the same time. But his performance is puzzling to me. The numbers show that over the course of his first three seasons, the quality of his linemates has increased, as has the quality of the competition he faces. Normally, one would expect a gradual increase in responsibility and support, along with maturity and development, to show results on the ice.
The 2020-21 season started with promising results, but came to an abrupt end about around the 40-game mark, when his offensive production stopped and goals against continued. The last portion of the chart below shows that coach Dominique Ducharme adjusted by increasing this offensive zone starts relative to defensive zone starts; this can be seen as some proof the coaching staff was trying to help Kotkaniemi kick start some offence.
A closer look at his game log (compared to Nick Suzuki below) shows that, at five-on-five, the number of goals against was not this issue; it was the lack of goals for.
When it comes to the numbers, it boils down to the lack of offensive impact relative to the position he's deployed-in and the expectations that come in that deployment. Might the easy solution be increasing his quality of linemates (and consistently) as suggest by many Kotkaniemi fans on social media?
This is where the whole nuance of situation comes into play. From a coach's perspective it's all about gaining every advantage possible through player deployment. For the Canadiens, the pecking order goes something like this: priority one is for the Danault line to match-up against the other teams top players. Priority number two is to counterpunch with the best offensive weapons remaining (this has been the Suzuki line) in the most advantageous situations such as offensive-zone starts against the other team's weakest lines or tired players. Priority number three is to deploy a trusted defensively responsible line to take key defensive zone draws and assignments not taken by the Danault line. That line, ideally, has a centre that is good on draws, defensive-zone coverage and able to assist the team in exiting the zone against good competition. Jake Evans has emerged as the key centre for this line, with good relative numbers down the stretch including substantial improvement in his face-off numbers.
Of course, most of the game is played on the fly, and the tactics of opposing coaches tend to cancel each other out. Regardless, in my opinion, coaches deploy their players systematically; Ducharme undoubtably deploys his players similar to how I described above- with those three priorities top of mind, and performance expectations set accordingly. But, unlike the NHL of past eras, the expectations on every player - fourth line or not - is to make a positive impact on outcomes. One-dimensional contribution, such as defensive play only, can no longer exist on a successful NHL team.
Is Nick Suzuki Blocking Kotkaniemi's Development?
The short answer is yes. Suzuki's success means he's scooped that second priority slot which comes with all the goodies - the prime offensive deployment and high quality of linemates. Success breeds success. This is the reality of professional sports.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kotkaniemi would have much better offensive numbers than he does now if he was deployed in Suzuki's spot, with consistent linemates and deployment, including on the power play which can be a source of confidence even with the slightest success.
The big question to ask: Does Suzuki deserve that spot over Kotkaniemi?
The short answer is yes. Using isolated impact information we can see that not only is Suzuki more impactful on the offensive side of the game, he is superior on the defensive side. Compared to Kotkaniemi isolated impact chart, Suzuki has a -5% impact on offence- not great, but better than Kotkaniemi's -10%. And Suzuki has a strong -10% impact on defence, whereas Kotkaniemi is at average (0%).
There is a lot of data out there that shows Nick Suzuki has significant impact on the defensive side of the game. It's what has endeared him to players and coaches alike. There are many players and NHL analysts who've gone on record praising Suzuki's hockey IQ; his defensive awareness and poise. The advance data agrees.
With a lack of offensive punch, and inferior defensive body of work to knock Suzuki out of that prime role, Kotkaniemi is left floundering with a less defined role; outside the coach's key deployment strategies. This also explains the carousal of linemates as the other lines are constructed with purpose and priority. For Kotkaniemi it has become a vicious cycle; a victim of the team's second-half futility which may have handcuffed Ducharme's willingness to break from his deployment strategies to help Kotkaniemi break his slump. Maybe Kotkaniemi needed Ducharme to be more patient and consistent with stronger linemates, but the desperate coach needed the young Finn to find some success in the position he was given.
Beware Recency Bias
So where does this leave us? All the information above really only explains why Kotkaniemi is deployed in an inferior position than Suzuki and Danault, which has its inherent challenges. Of course this hasn't been good for the young centre's development. The bad news for Canadiens fans is his crash in performance happened during the final portion of the season resulting in him being a healthy scratch for game one (and maybe longer) of the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The good news is he is not far removed from good performance. Eliminate the last 15 games or so of this season, and his numbers are all good; positive shot and goal shares. In last season's playoffs, Kotkaniemi had the best chance shares (70.1 xGF%) and goal shares ( 5 goals for and 1 goal against) among the Canadien's centres. (statistics- on-ice 5v5 play per naturalstattrick.com)
In other words, everyone knows he is good and capable of exceptional performance. Merely 20-years old, Kotkaniemi is the youngest centre in the NHL playing a regular role on this team. There's still lots of time for the team and player to figure it out. We may find out as early as game two in the opening round of the playoffs.
A warrior knows: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
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