Jesper Kotkaniemi CAR celly TUNE IN TONIGHT

NEW YORK -- Jesperi Kotkaniemi said he doesn't think about the what ifs of how he entered the NHL, but what if he wasn't the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and instead was a third-round pick, or even second, or even late first?

Would expectations for him be different? Would he even be on the Carolina Hurricanes? Would he have already played 334 NHL games at the age of 23?

"I feel like it doesn't matter what number, that's just how you enter the League," Kotkaniemi told "I just wanted to play in the NHL. It doesn't matter if I was third overall. I just try to make the best of it every day. I was honored to be picked by Montreal. It was great to spend a couple years there. Now being here on one of the best teams in the League, life is good."

Life in the NHL this season is better for Kotkaniemi than it has been since he debuted for the Montreal Canadiens as an 18-year-old in the 2018-19 season, playing 79 games and putting up 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists), a strong start that fueled even higher expectations that five seasons later he seems to be living up to.

Kotkaniemi is tied with Sebastian Aho for the scoring lead on the Hurricanes with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 15 games. Carolina hosts the Philadelphia Flyers at PNC Arena on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; MAX, TNT, TVAS).

He broke out in the second half of last season with 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in the final 35 games, including 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in the last 22 starting with an NHL career-high five-point night (one goal, four assists) against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 5.

CAR@FLA: Kotkaniemi locates rebound and scores opening goal

Kotkaniemi also had seven points (three goals, four assists) in 15 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

"I think the end of last year gave me a lot of confidence, so I felt it was a little easier to start this year," Kotkaniemi said. "The big thing is try to be consistent every night. That's what I'm trying to get to. That's my goal for this year."

Kotkaniemi never found consistency in Montreal. He played three seasons there, two that were impacted by the coronavirus pandemic (2019-20 and 2020-21). After his 34-point rookie season, he had 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 92 games over the next two seasons.

He had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 19 playoff games in 2021, helping Montreal reach the Stanley Cup Final. However, the  Canadiens didn't think enough of Kotkaniemi to match the one-year, $6.1 million contract offer sheet he signed with the Hurricanes later that summer.

That's how Kotkaniemi, still only a 20-year-old at the time, wound up in Carolina as a fourth-line center making $6.1 million. 

He's now in the second year of an eight-year, $38.56 million contract ($4.82 million average annual value) that he signed with the Hurricanes on March 21, 2022, and he's living up to the money, and the expectations, as their No. 2 center behind Sebastian Aho.

"He's matured as a player," Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "He was a young kid when he came in and it's amazing that growth between 19 and 22. As we all know it's getting stronger naturally, forget about all the extra work you put in. I think that's what you're seeing. Plus, the understanding of how the game is played. When you first show up on the scene you have no clue. It takes a lot of repetition and then you start figuring it out. He's still in the process of that in my opinion, but he's gotten better and he has a willingness to get better."

Kotkaniemi said he feels he has found his identity as a player.

"I try to be effective around the net," he said. "That's been good for me. I'm trying to get better at that and make that my trademark. I'm a big guy so I have to use my big body to find those loose pucks there. That has worked for me."

He is 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, so he can withstand the physical rigors of net-front battles and puck pursuits along the walls. The difference this season, Aho said, is that Kotkaniemi is winning those battles.

"He's always been somewhat strong and a big body out there, but I think he's playing more aggressive now and he's stronger on the puck," Aho said. "That comes from growing up and getting that man strength, and obviously confidence plays a role as well. He wins a lot of battles now. You see the aggressiveness come out and then you feel good about yourself and you start making plays. He always had the ability, but you've got to get the puck first. Now I think he wins more puck battles and just simply from that he gets more chances to score."

Kotkaniemi said he figured out early in his career that the more he drives the net the more he scores, or at least the more opportunities he gets to score. Brind'Amour, though, said knowing what he must do and figuring out how to do it was the inner battle Kotkaniemi had to conquer.

"He's always been a great player growing up and sometimes you take those skillsets and you think it's automatically going to happen," Brind'Amour said. "You have to realize everybody in the NHL is great, so now what are the other things you can do to get noticed or get more ice time or get this and that. It's all the other little things and that's what I think he's figured out."

And all of that takes time no matter where in the draft you're selected. It takes being patient for opportunity, seizing it when you get it, and maybe even a change of scenery to make it happen, which all happened in Kotkaniemi's case. 

He's 23 years old and 334 games into his NHL career, and Kotkaniemi is now looking like the player he was supposed to be when he was 18 and one of the top prospects in the world.

"He has another gear," Aho said. "Hopefully he can get there fast. The faster the better. I have no doubt he will."