A new NHL season is quickly approaching, and teams around the league are evaluating their organizational depth in order to determine where their prospects will play throughout the year. For Winnipeg Jets prospect Kristian Vesalainen, the time to make an impact and become a mainstay in the lineup is now.
Drafted 24th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, Vesalainen ranks high in the Jets’ prospect pool. Scouted as a power forward with size, strong skating, and a scoring touch, he possesses all the necessary tools to become an impact player in the NHL and the type that coaches love to have on their roster.
However, the Finnish winger has yet to elevate his game to the next level. Although this is a relatively small sample, Vesalainen has not done much in his 17 games in the NHL to warrant a roster spot with just two assists. Moreover, issues with consistency and decision-making have been recurring themes in his time with the Jets and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League (AHL).
Now four years into his professional playing career, the 22-year-old has another opportunity to make a permanent jump to the NHL this season. To do so, it will take both Vesalainen progressing in his development and the Jets placing him in a position to succeed to maximize the former first-round selection’s potential.
Gaining the Trust of the Winnipeg Jets Coaching Staff
Having yet to establish himself as a roster player, Vesalainen will have to earn the trust of head coach Paul Maurice and the rest of the staff. As the top-six will likely consist of Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, and Kyle Connor, Vesalainen will have to audition for a role in the bottom-six.
At 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, Vesalainen would benefit from utilizing his physical play as a power forward to wear down his opponents and create space for his linemates. Further, his ability to win puck battles along the boards would allow him to use his offensive skills and skating strides to contribute offensively.
It would not take long for Maurice to take note of this level of effort, as Vesalainen will quickly be relied upon to bring energy into the lineup. However, he would also have to overcome consistency issues when it comes to his play style.
At times, Vesalainen strays away from what makes him effective as a player and opts not to use his physical play. This coincides with a decrease in his offensive production, which he dealt with in his 12 games with the Jets last season. He likewise possesses a strong shot that he would benefit from using more often.
Playing to Kristian Vesalainen’s Strengths as a Power Forward
Development is a two-way street, and it takes both the player and organization cooperating to ensure their potential is reached. While Vesalainen must gain the trust of the Jets’ coaching staff, Maurice and co. will likewise need to ensure they are putting the young forward in a position to succeed. For that reason, they must account for both Vesalainen’s strengths and weaknesses as a player so that he is lined up with players that complement his style.
Concerning Vesalainen’s strengths, the winger has always been known for his offensive game and must accordingly be positioned where this aspect of his game can flourish. From a coaching standpoint, this would entail ice time, offensive zone starts, productive linemates, and a role on the powerplay. In this case, he would likely benefit from playing alongside the likes of Paul Stastny on the Jets’ third line while being centered by either Andrew Copp or Adam Lowry.
On the man advantage, Vesalainen could then be given opportunities to play alongside Scheifele, Connor, and Ehlers, where he can once again make use of his speed and physical play as a net-front presence or utilizing his shot on the right side.
In an interview with Global News following the Jets’ elimination to the Montreal Canadiens in June, Maurice mentioned that it would be a while before some young players such as Vesalainen, Jansen Harkins, and David Gustafsson take the spots of veterans on the penalty kill and powerplay. However, this was before a significant loss in the offseason.
“All three of those guys have a ways to go before I put in either of them to kill penalties against the Edmonton Oilers power play, which was number one in the league. Or take Matty Perreault’s job on the power play.”Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice sees season as a success
As Matthieu Perreault opted to leave Winnipeg and sign with his hometown Canadiens, there is now an opening on one of the Jets’ powerplay units. This is an opportunity that both the coaching staff and Vesalainen can benefit from. If given these opportunities, he could prove himself as a versatile offensive asset within the Jets lineup.
Accounting for Kristian Vesalainen’s Weaknesses
Outside of his consistency issues, Vesalainen struggles at times with his overall decision-making. In the offensive zone, he tends to overplay the puck and turn it over to the opposition. In the AHL, he has frequently blown his defensive coverage, leading to scoring chances and goals against. While he may have been able to get away with some of these mistakes while playing in Liiga, and at times in the AHL, Maurice is not likely to tolerate them at the NHL level.
Vesalainen still can develop into an all-around player who can be effective at both ends of the ice. However, it would be wise to ensure he is playing with linemates who can make up for some of those weaknesses. Once again, Stastny and either Copp or Lowry come to mind as ideal candidates. Both forwards are smart two-way players who can help balance out some of Vesalainen’s defensive woes as he continues to develop under Maurice.
Is Time Running Out for Vesalainen?
Although he spent most of the 2020-21 regular season on the team’s taxi squad and saw little in the way of playing time, Vesalainen continues to rank high among Jets’ prospects. Vesalainen’s size, speed, and ability to shoot the puck are assets coaches look for in every player.
If he were to put all those pieces together, gain the trust of his coaches, and find consistency, Vesalainen would have no trouble finding a spot in the Jets’ top-nine. However, internal competition within the Jets organization will not make things easy for the winger.
The Jets have been drafting relatively well these last few years, and Vesalainen will need to avoid falling down the organizational depth chart. Draft picks such as Gustafsson, Cole Perfetti, and Chaz Lucius will be contending for spots in the lineup in the coming years. This can possibly lead to some added pressure in making the lineup this season and securing a roster spot.
Playing on the second line with Stastny and Lowry in his most recent preseason game, Vesalainen is clearly being placed in a position to succeed where he can make use of his entire skill set. While he might not find his way into the lineup on opening night, he still has an opportunity to impress the Jets organization and be one of the first players to receive a call-up from the Moose.
Emmanuel is a Montreal-based writer covering the Winnipeg Jets for the Hockey Writers. Having spent three years covering the Montreal Canadiens on Twitter through post-game analyses, trade breakdowns, and opinions surrounding league-wide news, Emmanuel was looking to take a more professional approach to covering the game. As such, he spent the last few years writing editorials for various fan-based outlets.