Kristian Vesalainen has given more thought to his jersey number and a pair of future games — in which he might not even appear — than what life might look like if he’s demoted Tuesday by the Winnipeg Jets.
At least that’s what the 19-year-old Finnish-born left-winger would lead inquiring minds to believe.
Vesalainen will learn his fate today as NHL squads must finalize their 23-man rosters by 4 p.m. All signs point to Winnipeg’s 2017 first-round draft pick surviving his first training camp and sticking with the big club.
On Monday, he was once again grouped with Jack Roslovic up the middle and Nikolaj Ehlers on his off-wing during line rushes at Bell MTS Iceplex, just days before the Jets travel to St. Louis to face the Central Division-rival Blues in their season-opener on Thursday.
Vesalainen, who has switched from jersey No. 42 to No. 93 (but won’t say why) said the only scenario worth playing out is one that has him wearing a Jets jersey the rest of this week, and every week thereafter.
“This has been my dream since I was a little kid. So, it would be really amazing to get to go with these guys on this team,” he said. “I put like 110 per cent on this camp. I don’t want to have any distractions. I don’t plan anything. I just go with the flow.”
While his defensive play was surprisingly sound in the pre-season, Vesalainen, listed at 6-3, 207 pounds, notched just one goal, on a sweeping backhand against the Minnesota Wild.
He said he demands more from himself.
“I think I could produce more in offensive game. I haven’t had much there. Like, back in Finland I had a lot of scoring chances every game. Here, I got, like, four, maybe three shots. Not that good in offensive zone. So, I have to be better there.”
Vesalainen is eligible to play nine games before the Jets must decide whether he stays, heads to the AHL or returns to Finland for another season. They could still send him down after his 10th game, but it would use up the first season of his entry-level contract.
Winnipeg’s 13th and 14th games of the year are set for Helsinki against the Florida Panthers, and Vesalainen has envisioned suiting up at Hartwall Arena.
“Yeah, for sure. It’s my hometown, too, so it would be great to play there. A lot of my friends would come to see the game. Obviously, it’s been one thing I would want to do. I think it sold out pretty quick there… it’s going to be really good atmosphere there,” he said.
Heading into his third full season as a pro, Brendan Lemieux came to Jets training camp with a specific objective and makes no bones about it.
“It’d be great. I just don’t have too much control over it,” Lemieux said when asked what it would mean for him to stick with the NHL team. “If I was to tell you it’d be the best thing in the world and it not happen, it’d suck. But that’s what I’m up here doing, that’s what I’ve been working for. I definitely don’t want to go back down, but it’s just out of my control at this point.”
Jets head coach Paul Maurice had four set lines going during practice at the Iceplex on Monday, while Lemieux and Marko Dano spotted. Lemieux’s brash style of play is unique to the roster, but he remains the only player who doesn’t have to clear waivers if assigned to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. Dano and Nic Petan (currently on leave after the death of his father) would be open to a waiver claim by another team.
The 22-year-old son of former NHL great Claude Lemieux maintains he’s ready for a full-time NHL gig.
“I’ve had another year to grow. I’m still, hopefully, trending upward at 22, so I would definitely think I’m ready now, even though I thought I was last year,” said Lemieux, who scored one goal during a nine-game recall with Winnipeg last season. He fired 19 for the Moose. “I think this year’s just another step — bigger, stronger, faster — and then understanding our system. It’s a fast system.
“It definitely hasn’t gotten any easier to crack this lineup, our team’s as good as ever. I think I’ve definitely gotten better.”
Lemieux, who has played his entire career with an edge, had an interesting take on Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s questionable open-ice hit Sunday on Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.
Wilson faces a disciplinary committee Wednesday to explain his actions. Replays seemed to show he hit Sundqvist in the head while the Blues forward was taking the puck into the attacking zone.
“I can’t really speak to where (Wilson’s) head’s at, I don’t know. But me personally, yeah, it’s a quick game, there’s split-second decisions out there. I saw the hit. If he decides not to hit the guy, what’s his coach gonna say when he comes back to the bench? He’s a physical guy, that’s why he’s making a lot of money now,” Lemieux said.
“I’m sure he wasn’t trying to hit anyone in the head. I can totally understand how you can get a piece of someone’s head. I’ve been suspended getting a piece of someone’s head, giving someone a concussion, and it’s unfortunate. The shoulder’s right beside the head. It’s not easy but I can totally understand where (Wilson) is coming from and I then I can understand from the perspective of the other player. You know, you’re coming across the middle and a guy clips your head and how scary that can be.”
A panel of ESPN hockey experts have the Jets at No. 1 in their power rankings to kick off the 2018-19 season, while The Hockey News has gone as far as giving the Jets the nod as likely 2018-19 Stanley Cup champions.
Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler pays no heed to the prognostications.
“I don’t think we’ve really paid much attention to what people have said about us externally. If we listened to them last year, I think we were picked to finish last in our division. It’s a new year. Everyone’s got something to prove, including us. So, what’s said or what’s written or what happened last year doesn’t matter anymore,” Wheeler said.
“We do have talent. And talent has proven to make the game exciting and put fans in the seats, which we’ve never had a problem with. But it doesn’t win. The teams that have won in the past obviously are talented, sometimes have the best players in the world on their team, but there’s a lot more to it than that and that’s what we’re trying to work on.”
Defenceman Joe Morrow missed Monday’s practice due to illness, but isn’t expected to be shelved for too long.
Forward Michael Spacek was hobbled last week but has recovered and was assigned to the Moose, while blue-liner Logan Stanley also dealt with a minor injury but resumed skating with the Jets Monday, although he’ll likely be Moose-bound today. It’s also looking like defenceman Tucker Poolman could be headed for the Moose as well.
Poolman and Stanley were paired up Monday, while Dustin Byfuglien was with Ben Chiarot, Josh Morrissey partnered with Jacob Trouba and Dmitry Kulikov was with Tyler Myers.
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).