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Give Kristian Vesalainen this much: the kid doesn’t lack confidence.
There he was Wednesday, the Winnipeg Jets’ brightest young prospect not currently playing pro hockey, under the media spotlight in the middle of the organization’s summer development camp. And the inevitable question came up about 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.
That’s certainly plenty of moxie from someone who turned 19 just a few weeks ago and hasn’t played a single second in the greatest league in the world. But it’s the kind of answer that no doubt brings a smile to the face of many in the organization who believe the sky is the limit when it comes to his potential.
Vesalainen was quick to point out Laine is well ahead of him when it comes to one particular skill. At least for now.
“He has a better shot than me. That’s the one thing we’re apart,” said Vesalainen, who is no slouch himself when it comes to shooting pucks with precision and potency.
“Yeah, absolutely, but not on (Laine’s) level. Its a good shot though,” he said
But could he one day be just as lethal?
“We’ll see. Hopefully some day,” he said.
Vesalainen went on to explain that he plays more like a power winger and tries to model his game after Evgeni Malkin, one of his NHL idols.
“Absolutely. I attack more and (have) been more aggressive and good in the corner battles, so yeah, for sure,” he said.
The clean-shaven teen showed he had a good sense of humour when asked to weigh in on Laine’s infamous beard.
“Oh, that’s a tough one, actually. If we’re going to be honest, I don’t like that. But he’s going to do what he wants. I’m going to say no to that,” he said.
Winnipeg selected the 6-3, 207-pound forward 24th overall in the first round of last summer’s draft, then watched as he had a terrific season playing in the top men’s league in Finland. Vesalainen is planning to play pro hockey in North America this fall, competing for work with the Jets or starting the year with the Manitoba Moose, if necessary.
Contract talks are underway with the organization, Vesalainen confirmed Wednesday.
“That’s my plan. So hopefully we’re going to get that done,” he said.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said this week he isn’t anticipating any issues on that front while raving about Vesalainen’s development.
“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.
“We’ve had some preliminary conversations with his representative there, it’s all just part of the process. We would hope that he’ll be here and it’ll be a great challenge at training camp for him to try and push his way onto the Jets.”
Vesalainen put up the kinds of numbers this year rarely seen by a player his age. He 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.
To put his numbers in perspective, only three Finnish players 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 first turned heads on an international stage in 2017 when he was named MVP of the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. He had six goals and seven assists in seven games for Finland, which captured silver.
Vesalainen didn’t attend training camp with the Jets last year, signing a one-year deal to play in Europe. Finland went 2-2-0 in round-robin play at the world junior championship, but was eliminated in the quarter-finals with a shootout loss to the Czech Republic. Vesalainen led the team in scoring with two goals and four assists in five games.
Now he’s got his sights set on the pro game. He’s been hampered by a minor upper-body injury at development camp this week and has yet to skate with the full group. He’s aiming to do that today.
“It’s been great. It’s nice to know there are new people that have been drafted. It’s been cool,” Vesalainen said of the experience so far in Winnipeg.
His goals over the summer are to improve his puck skills while getting ready for the big move. His parents are expected to come with him to help him adjust. And Vesalainen said it’s nice to have so many Finnish-born players in Winnipeg, including Laine, Joel Armia and Sami Niku.
“Absolutely. It’s more fun to have some Finns in the team and talk with your own language. It’s helping a lot,” he said.
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.