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Canadiens coach Claude Julien defends benching of Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Canadiens coach Claude Julien defends benching of Jesperi Kotkaniemi
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The rookie centre played only two shifts in the final period, logging 40 seconds of ice time, before getting benched and finishing the game with a season-low 7:56 of ice time. Head coach Claude Julien said after the game that Kotkaniemi is a young player still learning the game and that he let his man go on two or three shifts that resulted in scoring chances for the Blackhawks. The benching came after Kotkaniemi was a healthy scratch for two games on a California road trip early this month.

Montreal Canadiens assistant coach Dominique Ducharme talks strategy with Joel Armia, left, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi during third period against the Florida Panthers in Montreal on Jan. 15, 2019. John Mahoney / Montreal Gazette

At this point, you have to wonder if the 18-year-old’s confidence is beginning to get frayed and if he will start playing afraid to make mistakes — which is not a good thing for a young player. Kotkaniemi was selected third overall at last year’s NHL Entry Draft and the Canadiens don’t have a good track record when it comes to developing their first-round picks, which include Nikita Scherbak (2014), Mike McCarron (2013), Alex Galchenyuk (2012), Nathan Beaulieu (2011), Jared Tinordi (2010) and Louis Leblanc (2009).

After practice Monday in Brossard, Julien said he’s not worried about Kotkaniemi’s confidence.

“No. Not at all, guys. Not at all,” Julien said. “Geez, he’s 18 years old. There’s times he’s going to have some struggles. You know what? I’ve got to do what’s best for the team first and foremost. If I don’t bench him and he ends up costing us a goal or a game … let’s say that happens and we don’t make the playoffs. Are we going to say: ‘Oh, didn’t make the playoffs, but Kotkaniemi kept playing’? We’ve got to balance things out and … you do what you have to do to win a hockey game.

“The 18-year-old kid is going to be an unbelievable player for this organization for many years to come,” Julien added. “It’s called learning to play the game at a young age and that’s part of getting some experience and growing up. We didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think he’s discouraged, I don’t think we hurt his development. It’s just one of those situations where we’re going to sit down with him and we’re going to show him the areas he’s got to get better at and make him a better player. Nothing more than that.”

Kotkaniemi has 11-21-32 totals in 70 games and a plus-3 rating while averaging 13:58 of ice time. He is pointless in his last five games and has only two assists in his last nine. All 11 of the rookie’s goals have come at the Bell Centre. As the youngest player in the NHL, Kotkaniemi ranked eighth among rookies in scoring through Sunday’s games, trailing Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson (27-33-60), Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson (20-20-40), Buffalo’s Rasmus Dahlin (8-30-38), Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk (16-20-36), Ottawa’s Colin White (13-22-35), Chicago’s Dominik Kahun (12-22-34) and Carolina’s Andrei Svechnikov (18-15-33).

Kotkaniemi doesn’t turn 19 until July 6.

The Canadiens’ Brendan Gallagher remembers getting benched a couple of times early in his career and said Kotkaniemi will be just fine.

“Sometimes you just don’t have it,” Gallagher said. “To be honest, when you get benched usually you can see it coming. You know you’re not playing very well. I haven’t talked to KK. He’s an 18-year-old kid. When I was 18, I was much behind where he’s at in his career. So I don’t think he’s all that concerned. He’s a big part of our team, he needs to be a big part of our team next game. Forget about it and go play. If he does that and does what he can do, he’s going to help our team.”
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