Jesperi Kotkaniemi

2018 NHL draft profile: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, top center a trade-up option

2018 NHL draft profile: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, top center a trade-up option

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 NHL draft, we're providing prospect profiles and how those players would fit with the Flyers, who have two first-round picks — Nos. 14 and 19.

The NHL draft takes place June 22-23 at American Airlines Center in Dallas. The Flyers have nine picks with two in the first, fifth and seventh rounds and one in the second, fourth and sixth. They do not own a third-rounder as it went to the Detroit Red Wings for Petr Mrazek. The 14th pick conveyed from the Brayden Schenn trade. The final details were Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for Jori Lehtera, a 2017 first-round pick (Morgan Frost) and the 14th pick.

Our prospect profiles will touch mostly on prospects projected to go in the 10-20 range but some may require the Flyers having to trade up to select. We’ll identify those prospects.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Position: Center
Height: 6-foot-2
Weight: 181
Shoots: Left
Team: Ässät

Scouting report
Arguably the top center for the 2018 draft, Kotkaniemi, who turns 18 in July, is rising among this class.

As a 17-year-old playing against men in the Finnish Elite League, Kotkaniemi put up 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 57 regular-season games during 2017-18. To cap off a strong draft year, he also won a gold medal in the 2018 U-18 World Junior Championships, delivering nine points (three goals, six assists) and a plus-9 rating over seven games for Finland.

Kotkaniemi fit right in with the big boys of the Finnish Elite League because he brings superb hockey smarts and elite vision to go along with a nice frame. The NHL Central Scouting's sixth-ranked European skater identifies time and space well and offers positional versatility.

Areas in which he wants to improve, though, are his initial breakout stride and overall skating, which appears a bit choppy at times.

Fit with Flyers
It's looking like the Flyers would have to move up in order to land Kotkaniemi, who may climb into the top six and doesn't seem likely to drop to No. 14.

At the NHL combine, Kotkaniemi told Oilers TV that he interviewed with 25 teams. He went to dinner with three — the Canadiens, Red Wings and Blackhawks, all of whom pick in the top eight.

General manager Ron Hextall likes to draft centers, especially ones with winger potential. Having two first-round picks makes a trade-up scenario possible, but ultimately Kotkaniemi might be out of the Flyers' grasp.

More on the 2018 NHL draft

Profile: Serron Noel

Profile: Joel Farabee

• Profile: Barrett Hayton

• Profile: Isac Lundestrom

• Profile: Joseph Veleno

• Profile: Vitali Kravtsov

Photo of Kotkaniemi from Scott Matla (HabsEOTP/@scottmatla).

2018 NHL draft position preview — Centers

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Terry Wilson/OHL Images

2018 NHL draft position preview — Centers

Last week, we began our 2018 NHL draft coverage by examining the history of the Flyers’ two first-round picks, 14th overall and No. 19. Today, we begin looking at this year’s draft class.

We begin with position previews. First up, the top draft-eligible centers. While the Flyers’ two first-rounders are in the teens, general manager Ron Hextall may opt to trade up into the top 10, which is why we are including the top prospects first and then later will provide better fits for the Flyers.

Joe Veleno, 6-1/193, Drummondville (QMJHL)
Veleno finished as the eighth-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, a five-spot jump from its midterm rankings. He began the 2017-18 season with Saint John, which drafted him with the first overall pick in the 2015 QMJHL entry draft, before being traded to Drummondville. With Saint John this season, Veleno posted 31 points in 31 games. After the trade, his numbers shot up. He tallied 16 goals and 48 points in 33 games with Drummondville.

Let’s go back to the 2015 QMJHL draft. Hockey Canada granted Veleno “exceptional status,” allowing him to play in major junior hockey at 15 years old. He became the first Quebec player and just the fifth CHL player to receive this status. The others were Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Sean Day. Because of the “exceptional status,” some may feel inclined to lump him into the conversation with McDavid and Tavares, but Veleno is not at that level of prospect. He’s a strong skater with a high hockey IQ and plays a solid 200-foot game.

Draft projection: Between Nos. 8-12.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, 6-2/188, Assat (Liiga)
Kotkaniemi is a 17-year-old prospect who already has a professional season under his belt. He finished with 29 points in 57 games this season, seventh most by a U-18 player in Liiga history. Finished as the sixth-ranked European skater by Central Scouting, a three-spot climb from the midterm rankings. He can play all three forward positions but projects as a center in the NHL.

Draft projection: Between Nos. 9-15

Barrett Hayton, 6-1/190, Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)
Hayton is a teammate of Flyers prospect Morgan Frost (27th overall, 2017) and finished ranked ninth among North American skaters by Central Scouting, a three-spot drop from the midterm rankings. He doesn’t have high-end potential but has been pegged as a safe pick that he’ll be an NHLer.

Draft projection: Between Nos. 10-16

Isac Lundestrom, 6-0/185, Luleå HF (SHL)
Lundestrom checks in as the eighth-ranked European skater, a five-spot drop from midterm. He just finished his second professional season in the SHL. Had six goals and 15 points in 42 games for Luleå HF in 2017-18. His best attribute is his shot, a quick release with precision. He’s a decent skater and plays a solid two-way game. Should be taken around the end of the lottery.

Draft projection: Between Nos. 10-17

Rasmus Kupari, 6-1/183, Karpat (Liiga)
More European flavor to wrap up the top draft-eligible centers, a position that’s usually stronger than this year’s class. Kupari saw a five-spot drop from Central Scouting’s midterm rankings, finishing 11th among Europeans. He didn’t play a ton for Karpat this year, averaging 12 minutes but had 14 points in 39 games. Has a lot of raw talent but not fully developed.

Draft projection: Between Nos. 15-22