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Kristian Vesalainen believes he’s an NHL-ready player. And now the confident, talented Finnish teenager will get a chance to prove it as early as this fall after signing an entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.
The three-year deal carries an average annual value of $1.492 million. That includes the maximum salary of $925,000 along with performance and signing bonuses.
Vesalainen, 19, is the organization’s most intriguing young prospect after being chosen 24th overall in the 2017 draft. The winger had 19 goals and 20 assists in 44 games with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League, otherwise known as Liiga. He was then traded to top-ranked Karpat late in the year, scoring three goals and adding an assist in five games. He added four goals and four assists in 18 playoff games on the way to winning the championship.
Only three Finnish players have ever posted more points in a single regular season in that league prior to hitting their 19th birthday. (Teemu Pulkkinen, Aleksander Barkov and Sebastian Aho).
“It’s not usual. He’s a special kid, I think,” Antti Pennanen, his coach with HPK, told the Free Press earlier this year. “This is something that doesn’t happen.”
Vesalainen stands 6-3, weighs close to 210 pounds and said he models his game after NHL superstar Evgeni Malkin. And did we mention he’s a confident kid? At the Jets summer development camp in late June, he was asked what similarities he might share with fellow Finn Patrik Laine, who has quickly established himself as one of the elite scorers in the NHL.
“I think I’m a little bit more all-around player,” was Vesalainen’s response.
Vesalainen could continue playing in Europe but said he plans to make his pro debut in North America this coming season — either with the Jets or starting the season with the Manitoba Moose, if necessary.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff raved about Vesalainen’s development earlier this summer, saying “it’ll be a great challenge at training camp for him to try and push his way onto the Jets.”
“So, he went and had a real solid season, a real stable season right from start to finish. He had a good year on the offensive side of it, got traded and had an opportunity to win a championship over there, which is always an important part of any player’s development, to be able to go through that rigour. And then just on the personal side, it was a great growth year for him,” said Cheveldayoff.
The Jets are fairly stacked at the forward position with Laine, Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Bryan Little, Mathieu Perreault, Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp, Brandon Tanev, Jack Roslovic, Marko Dano and Nic Petan all under contract. Vesalainen would likely have to push one of them out of the picture to stick with the big club out of training camp, barring any injuries. He will also have competition from Moose players such as Mason Appleton, Brendan Lemieux and Nic Kerdiles.
Getting Vesalainen signed was one of the last remaining items on Cheveldayoff’s to-do list. There are still three remaining restricted free agents who need new contracts in Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, Moose forward JC Lipon and Moose goalie Eric Comrie.
Training camp is set to begin Sept. 13, with the first of seven pre-season games starting Sept. 17. The puck drops on Winnipeg’s regular-season on Oct. 4.
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.