Vesalainen, Niku stuck on the outside looking in

You know that feeling when pretty much everyone around you gets to be in on something really fun, and you’re stuck on the outside looking in?

It’s worse if you weren’t even invited.

To rub some extra salt in the wound, the event that’s going on without you is all over social media. Instagram selfies. Snapchat videos. Twitter posts. The works. You can’t escape it. Everywhere you turn is a reminder of what could have been.

Sucks, doesn’t it? I’m guessing that’s what Kristian Vesalainen and Sami Niku are experiencing these days.

Because while a couple dozen fellow members of the Winnipeg Jets organization are currently getting the rock-star treatment over in Finland, these two Finnish-born players were left behind.

Rather than tour Tampere and get a hero’s welcome in Helsinki, the pair spent the past few days shuttling between Milwaukee and Rockford with the Manitoba Moose.

That’s got to sting at least a little. Especially when both players were so vocal in recent weeks about their desire to not only make the everyday roster of the Winnipeg Jets, but get to go back to their homeland as NHL players.

“That would be a cool thing to do. I’ve heard there’s a lot of (friends in Finland) talking about going to watch the games. It would be great,” Vesalainen, who is from Helsinki, told scribes during the prospect development camp over the summer.

“Of course I want to be there,” Niku, who was born in Haapavesi, told me in early September with a big smile on his face.

Vesalainen’s absence is especially surprising. The 19-year-old actually made the Jets out of training camp, was in the opening-night lineup and even had an assist in his first game, a victory over St. Louis.

But by game six, Vesalainen was up in the press box as a healthy scratch, and a few nights later, he was on his way down to the minors. It made sense, given he was pretty much a non-factor in limited minutes on the fourth line. The kid needed to play.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said at the time it was a “short-term idea,” to keep Vesalainen fresh and get him some heavy action with the AHL affiliate, which gave the impression a quick recall in time for the Global Series games was likely in the works.

When Vesalainen put up four assists in his first two games with the Moose — with Maurice and his coaching staff looking on last weekend at Bell MTS Place — it seemed inevitable.

But the phone never rang for Vesalainen, even though there was a roster opening created by his demotion that had to be filled. That went to his Moose teammate, Tucker Poolman.

Ouch.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets Finnish defenceman Sami Niku is toiling with the Manitoba Moose while the Winnipeg Jets are getting ready to play the Florida Panthers in his homeland.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets Finnish defenceman Sami Niku is toiling with the Manitoba Moose while the Winnipeg Jets are getting ready to play the Florida Panthers in his homeland.

(Moose starter Eric Comrie also went, as Winnipeg and Florida are allowed to bring a third goaltender above and beyond the 23-player maximum).

An added element to all this is the fact Vesalainen has an out clause in his contract that allows him to return to Europe to play hockey this season if he’s not on the Jets roster. You wonder how not getting the invite to Finland might factor in how things shake out going forward. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Maurice told me Saturday in Toronto the club decided to bring an eighth defenceman for the overseas trip, rather than a 14th forward. (Nic Petan, currently the 13th forward on the club, has yet to play this season). The logic being that you could survive a couple of injuries up front more than you could on the blue line without some added depth.

Fair enough. But then why not Niku, the reigning American Hockey League defenceman of the year? The 22-year-old seemingly did everything asked of him in his rookie season last year with the Moose, then looked impressive in pre-season action last month.

He is clearly knocking on the door with the Jets, with the biggest obstacle in his way the fact the team has seven defencemen on one-way contracts.

Niku, like his Moose teammates, is off to a bit of a slow start this year. He had no goals and three assists through the first seven games of the season heading into action Sunday evening in Rockford. He’s also a minus-five on the 3-4-0 club.

Poolman, 25, spent a big chunk of last year with the Jets and has a bit more versatility right now with the ability to play both the right and left side. So that could have been a factor.

There was plenty of angry online reaction this weekend, some of it directed my way on social media. “Bush league move,” one commenter told me.

I wouldn’t go that far, but it brought me back to a comment Maurice made earlier this month when asked about how he tries to manage playing time among his skaters. His fourth-line was barely being used, and both Jack Roslovic and Mathieu Perreault had expressed some concern over how long they were sitting idle on the bench.

“This is not recreational hockey. You don’t pay your $85 and get equal ice time here, man,” Maurice replied.

Now, as a parent of two long-time recreational hockey players I only wish the costs were 85 bucks a season. But his point stands, and it gives some insight into how a professional sports franchise operates.

There are no handouts, no freebies, no token goodwill gestures. Decisions are made on merit, not emotion. Maurice said as much last week, that Vesalainen’s birthplace wouldn’t be a factor he’d consider.

“It doesn’t at all for me, no,” the coach said.

It’s a results-oriented business, and a cut-throat one at times. If Vesalainen and Niku are upset, the not-so-subtle message being sent here is “play better.”

Perhaps, in the long run, it will serve as a bit of extra motivation for a pair of players who have no shortage of skill and potential and are still trying to find their way in North America.

But for now, I’m guessing that’s cold-comfort to Vesalainen and Niku as they toil in the minors. With the big club more than 6,000 kilometres away, the road to full-time work with the Jets has likely never felt longer.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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.

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