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VANCOUVER – It just might be the Winnipeg Jets most interesting power play of the season.
Kristian Vesalainen will spend Monday night in the press box at Rogers Place here in Vancouver watching others play an NHL hockey game. The 2017 first-round draft pick should get used to the view, because who knows when he might see action again. Or, most importantly, where.
According to European media reports, Vesalainen was to have been 7,500 kilometres away this week, preparing to suit up for Jokerit of the Kontinental Hockey League. The club traded for his rights last week with full intention of having the 19-year-old local product make an immediate impact. News of the move created a major buzz in Finland, and for good reason.
Except the Jets crashed the homecoming party.
Just hours before his “European assignment clause” was set to kick in – a one-year stipulation the Jets agreed to when signing him to a three-year entry-level deal last summer – Winnipeg recalled Vesalainen from the Manitoba Moose. Even though they didn’t actually need his services. And likely have no plans of using him anytime soon, barring injury.
The Jets already have a healthy Brendan Lemieux and Sami Niku sitting on the sidelines waiting for an opening. They also have major salary cap issues, which made carrying just 22 skaters (instead of the maximum of 23) an ideal situation. Every dollar counts, especially when the club is so close to the ceiling.
However, Vesalainen’s contract only allowed him to bolt this season if he was playing in the AHL, where he was making $70,000. He lost that right as soon as he was back on an NHL roster, now making $925,000. Friday’s transaction threw up a major roadblock for Vesalainen, even if it did bring him a massive raise in the process. It’s not known what kind of money he was set to make in the KHL, although it would have been substantially more than his AHL salary.
To quote Shakespeare, is something really rotten in the state of Denmark? There’s definitely much more than meets the eye here.
If this recall was really about filling a need for the Jets, why did it happen Friday night just as the fully healthy team was about to face the Buffalo Sabres at Bell MTS Place? Why not wait until Sunday, which would have allowed Vesalainen to get in a pair of weekend games with the Moose in Grand Rapids and Chicago and then join the Jets for their road trip which began Monday in Vancouver?
After all, the very reason Vesalainen was sent down to the AHL after five NHL games was so he didn’t gather dust. The organization wants him to play, and not just the handful of relatively ineffective minutes on a fourth-line role he was seeing with the Jets before was bumped out of the lineup as a healthy scratch.
By all accounts Vesalainen was flourishing with the Moose, a point-per-game player at that level with three goals and five assists in eight contests. He was on the top line, the top power play unit and growing more comfortable with the North American game.
So why would the Jets interrupt all that just to have him be the 14th forward for the foreseeable future? Even Jets coach Paul Maurice seemed to be taken off guard when asked Friday night what his plan for Vesalainen was.
“We’ll get him here, we’ll get him working in some practices and then leave the rest to management,” was Maurice’s response. When asked about it again on Sunday, the coach admitted there’s not exactly room at the inn right now, especially with Winnipeg healthy and all four lines playing well.
“I don’t have any expectation either way,” Maurice said of whether Vesalainen might actually play at some point “I don’t have a game pencilled for him or for Brendan (Lemieux).”
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has declined to comment on the Vesalainen-to-Europe reports. But it’s safe to say this is not an ideal situation. Not for Vesalainen. And not for the organization.
“I don’t know,” is all Vesalainen would say, repeatedly, when asked Sunday if he was heading home had the Jets not changed his plans.
Not exactly putting out the fire there. And don’t forget that Vesalainen and his fellow countryman, Niku, were likely miffed at being left behind when the Jets went to Finland for a pair of “Global Series” games at the beginning of November. Niku ended up being suspended for a game with the Moose for violating some type of team rule a week later that nobody in the organization has disclosed any further information about.
Niku has since been brought up by the Jets following Dmitry Kulikov’s injury, but he has yet to see any game action. And now Vesalainen has joined him.
If you don’t buy that Vesalainen’s recall was simply a routine transaction that has nothing to do with anything else — and I certainly don’t — then there are only two logical explanations for what’s going on here.
One is that the Jets have caved to a player’s demands to be back in the NHL. Essentially, they couldn’t afford to wait any longer if Vesalainen and his camp no longer wanted to remain with the Moose to work on his game. They kept him in the AHL until the last possible second and then called him up rather than have him depart on a one-way ticket to Helsinki. They want to protect their asset and keep him under their control, even if they don’t see a fit for him right now in the everyday lineup.
This would seem unlikely. Cheveldayoff and his staff aren’t going to allow a player, especially a teenage rookie, call the shots. That would obviously set a bad precedent. And how is not playing with Winnipeg going to help his development? If he can’t get in the Jets lineup, and doesn’t want to be with the Moose, then the team should honour the terms they agreed to and allow him to go play the rest of this year in Europe.
The other explanation is the the organization didn’t like Vesalainen’s plans leaking out ahead of time in Finland and decided to wrestle control away from him. That’s certainly the view of one well-connected Finnish hockey source I spoke to this weekend about the situation.
“They want to show they are running the show. All NHL teams want to control almost everything,” the source said.
Still, he predicted this is simply delaying the inevitable and that Vesalainen will likely be returned to the AHL at some point — barring injury or performance issues with Winnipeg which opens the door for him to play — and then exercise his option to go to the KHL. However, time is of the essence since their regular season ends in February.
As many teams have learned this season, it’s never a good strategy to take a penalty against the Jets. They’ve been positively lethal this season on the power play.
Perhaps the same can now be said for off the ice, as well.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.