The Winnipeg Jets’ relationship with their most disappointing first-round pick since relocating from Atlanta has taken another step toward a permanent breakup.
We Were on a Break!
Just like Ross and Rachel in the meme-worthy third-season episode of “Friends,” a rift between the Jets’ front office and Kristian Vesalainen has led to the two parting ways, for now.
Vesalainen would be the Ross in this situation (if you recall, he ended up in bed with a woman named Chloe and attempted to defend that decision later, leading to the famous phrase.)
On Monday, the 24th-overall pick of the 2017 draft signed a one-year contract with the Swedish Hockey League’s Malmo Red Wings.
Vesalainen’s latest European foray is the logical next step in a relationship that’s been rocky.
Vesalainen Hasn’t Found NHL Success, Lacks a Strong Work Ethic
The Finn never found his footing in the five years since being selected, recording just two goals and three assists in 70 games for the Jets. He was given a legitimate chance to strut his stuff in 53 games this season, but recorded just two goals and one assist before being sent down to the Moose.
Five points over three seasons is a far cry from the production the Jets thought they would get from a player they were very high on and was touted to have high-end talent and goal-scoring ability. The biggest issue with Vesalainen is that despite his assets — a big frame and a wicked shot — he rarely put himself in a position to showcase them.
His lack of effort and tentativeness was most apparent after being sent down to the Moose. AHL writer Jacob Stoller, for example, noted his lackadaisical play style. This led to Moose head coach Mark Morrison, a big proponent of effort, scratching him at times.
“I just watched every single one of Kristian Vesalainen’s AHL shifts this year and I am just completely puzzled by his continued lack of urgency/engagement,” Stoller Tweeted on March 26.
Lack of Committment an Unfortunate Hallmark of Vesalainen’s Game
Vesalainen’s lack of committment and drive were unfortunate hallmarks of his personality from the very start of his Jets’ tenure. In his rookie 2018-19 season, he activated an out clause in his contract that allowed him to return to Helsinki to play for Jokerit rather than with the Moose.
His decision to go back to the familiar European big ice instead of staying with the Moose and taking on a new challenge was not well received by the organization. His time with Jokerit also did nothing for his development and as a result of his decision to waste a year, he spent 2019-20 adapting to the North American-style game and smaller ice surface in the minors instead of making his mark in the NHL.
Many prospects in the pipeline had surpassed Vesalainen. Morgan Barron — who impressed with four points in 14 games for the Jets and was a monster for the Moose in the playoffs — and Cole Perfetti —who had rotten luck with injuries but looked right at home on the Jets’ top six in January and February — are just two.
Even older players such as Mikey Eyssimont and CJ Suess have more upside on the bottom six thanks to their stronger work ethics.
Jets Control Vesalainen’s NHL Future, But Future of the Relationship is Uncertain
Vesalainen is a pending restricted free agent. If the Jets tender him a qualifying offer this summer, they retain his rights, meaning if he wants to return to the NHL, he’ll have to play for the Jets (unless they trade him.)
There’s a chance this detour to the SHL does Vesalainen some good and helps him recapture his mojo. He possesses all the necessary tools to become an impactful NHLer, and it has been quite frustrating to see someone so skilled squander their opportunities.
If Vesalainen does return to the Jets in the future, he wouldn’t be the first player to do so. Alexander Burmistrov, drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers eighth overall in 2010, did the same.
The Russian sniper played the first two seasons with the Jets after relocation but clashed with then head-coach Claude Noel and fell out of favour, leading to his departure to the KHL’s Kazan Ak-Bars between 2013 and 2015. Noel was fired in early 2015 and Paul Maurice took over; feeling he could re-energize his career under a new regime, Burmistrov signed a two-year deal with the the Jets prior to the 2015-16 season.
The Jets’ relationship with Burmistrov ultimately didn’t last too long. He had 21 points in 81 games in 2015-16 but only two points in 23 games in 2016-17 before being placed on waivers and claimed by the Arizona Coyotes.
We will see if Vesalainen’s career takes a similar trajectory — especially considering the Jets are poised to hire a new head coach after a highly-disappointing season — or if he’ll stay in Europe for good.
Right now, it’s quite difficult to see what the future holds for the relationship between the team and player, if anything at all.
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.