On Wednesday, TSN released a list outlining the top five prospects on each Canadian NHL team.
One notable absence from the Winnipeg Jets’ list is Finnish forward Kristian Vesalainen which leads to the obvious question: why?
Vesalainen Has Been Vaulted
Of the five players on the list, only one is a forward — second-round 2015 pick Jansen Harkins, who’s dominating the AHL this season with 31 points in 30 games, was named the AHL Player of the Month for November, was selected as an AHL All-Star, and got a well-deserved call-up to the big club last month.
Vesalainen, meanwhile — considered by many at the beginning of training camp be a lock to crack the Jets in his second pro season — hasn’t been recalled, whereas, in addition to Harkins, Joona Luoto, Logan Shaw, and CJ Suess have all seen big-league action in 2019-20.
Vesalainen Brought Snub Upon Himself
Vesalainen fell off the radar a bit after a subpar training camp, in which he did nothing to differentiate himself from other players vying for bottom-six spots and was held pointless despite having ample chances to strut his stuff. He was out-hustled and looked hesitant or downright bored at times. As a result, he was sent to the Manitoba Moose.
The reason the 2017 first-round pick wasn’t ready for an NHL gig this season was because he returned to Helsinki, his hometown, to play for Jokerit on the big ice last season rather than stick it out with the Moose and adapt to the challenges of the North American play style.
While he played 22 games for the Moose last season — the majority after Jokerit’s season had wrapped up — that decision set him back a year. An extra 50 AHL games would have better equipped him to make the jump to the Jets in September; instead, he’s been forced to learn what he should have learned last season.
Vesalainen Started Cold in the AHL…
It was never more clear that Vesalainen’s European excursion was a waste of time than this past fall, when he got off to a cold-as-Winnipeg-in-mid-January start. He tallied just three assists in his first 10 games as the Moose had a dreadful October. That’s far from the production expected from a player hyped to be a top-six NHL forward one day.
His November was a little better, with four goals and four assists. However, those numbers were still underwhelming considering the team went on a tear and he played 15 games; he still wasn’t producing consistently, especially at even strength.
…But Is Starting to Heat Up
Since December, however, Vesalainen has started to find his groove and is more consistently using his speed, 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame, and wicked shot — which he was loath to use in the preseason and the first part of the AHL campaign for some reason. He is up to eight goals and 12 assists in 38 games and has seven points in his past seven games.
Last month, Moose head coach Pascal Vincent compared Vesalainen to Kyle Connor, the highly-impressive perennial 30-goal scorer who was sent down to the AHL partway through the 2016-17 campaign but struggled early on with the Moose.
(Vesalainen) knows when he plays a good game. He knows when he makes a mistake and he has his daily routine in place and he’s sticking to his plan. He’s going to be fine. He’s going to be a real good player.Pascal Vincent to Inside AHL Hockey’s Jacob Stoller in mid-December.
Indeed, Vesalainen is finding the scoresheet with more regularity, but still has some work to do at even strength: five of his eight goals have come on the power play, where he’s been most consistently dangerous.
It’s Not Time to Panic Yet
Vesalainen still has two years on his contract after this season thanks to the entry-level slide and the Jets are nothing if not patient with their prospects. Many of their high-round picks who are now everyday NHLers have spent time in the minors, including Kyle Connor, Connor Hellebuyck, Josh Morrissey, Tucker Poolman, and Jack Roslovic.
Overall, while Vesalainen’s absence from the TSN list is justified, he is still a top prospect — THW’s own Ryan Goethals still had him in the number one spot on his November prospect update, for what it’s worth — and is still on the path to being an impact NHLer in the future, even if he’s developing slower than expected and has been surpassed by others for now.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.