The Winnipeg Jets are getting revved up and ready to go for what’s hopefully a lengthy playoff run this spring and the Manitoba Moose are in a dogfight for a playoff spot of their own with 17 games to go, but Kristian Vesalainen might not play another professional hockey game until October.
This begs the question: was his choice to return to Europe the right one, or did it lead to a wasted season?
Vesalainen Chose Old Comforts Over New Challenges
On March 7, Vesalainen’s team, Helsinki-based Jokerit, was eliminated in the Kontinental Hockey League’s Western Conference Quarterfinals (the first round) by HC Dynamo 4-2. In the elimination game, Vesalainen barely saw any ice at all, logging just 6:18 and 10 shifts as the 13th forward.
Vesalainen made the 2018-19 Jets out of training camp and played six games in a bottom-six role — picking up one assist — before being assigned to the Moose. In mid-November, after eight AHL games in which he recorded three goals and five assists and got plenty of ice time, he activated an out clause in his contract that allowed him to return to Europe if he wasn’t on the NHL roster.
While Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made it clear he’d rather have the 19-year-old stay with the Moose and continue to adapt to the hard-checking North American style of game rather than continue to play yet another season on wide-open, European-sized ice, he had no choice but to watch as his 2017 first-round pick packed up and left.
Vesalainen’s choice to return to the creature comforts of his hometown and a style of hockey he’d already outgrown, rather than boldly face the challenges that came with playing a new type of hockey in a new city, wasn’t the best look. However, head coach Paul Maurice didn’t believe returning to Europe would set Vesalainen back.
“You can get better anywhere and you can be stagnant anywhere. You’ve got to work hard and push yourself to get better every day. It doesn’t matter where you are,” he said. (from ‘Jets prospect bolts for Finland to play in KHL’ – Winnipeg Free Press – 11/20/2018.)
Cheveldayoff noted that “the biggest thing for all players is to play, certainly for a 19-year-old player.”
Vesalainen’s European Experience a Mixed Bag
Vesalainen’s camp continually framed his decision to play for Jokerit rather than the Moose as what was best for his development. Vesalainen himself also framed it that way when he turned down an invitation to play for his country at the 2019 World Junior Championshipsin Vancouver and Victoria for a third crack at a gold medal, stating it was better for his hockey and future to stick with one team rather than return to North America.
That seemed logical as he got off to a flying start with Jokerit. In the 13 games between his arrival and the New Year, he recorded four goals and seven assists for 11 points, and was even named the KHL’s rookie of the week in mid-December.
— KHL (@khl_eng) December 12, 2018
However, Vesalainen’s role and production waned as the calendar turned to 2019 and his season went on. In the 18 games between New Year’s Day and the KHL Playoffs, he averaged about 12 minutes per game, saw little time on special teams and only produced six further points. His overall totals: a respectable, if unremarkable, six goals and 11 assists for 17 points in 31 games.
Was Vesalainen’s European Excursion a Waste of Time?
It’s tougher now than it was in November to regard Vesalainen’s decision as a good one or beneficial for his evolution as a player — he’s played only 50 games since October, many of which were in a limited role. If he’d swallowed his pride and stuck with the Moose, he not only would have played more games, but also would have played more minutes in a larger variety of situations.
— Jokke Nevalainen (@JokkeNevalainen) March 7, 2019
He also would have been on the Jets’ radar for a recall. Ironically, he likely would have gotten one less than a week after his departure after Andrew Copp was concussed during a Black Friday matchup against the Minnesota Wild. Brendan Lemieux (now a New York Ranger after being shipped out as part of the deal that brought Kevin Hayes to the Jets) got the opportunity instead and played 35 games with the Jets between then and the trade deadline, comprising part of a terrific fourth line with Copp and Mason Appleton.
Vesalainen hasn’t done much this season to endear himself to the organization that holds the key to his future as an NHL player, nor has he done himself any favours by making it harder for the Jets to keep tabs on him. Points put up and positive things done halfway across the globe simply do not have the same impact as points and deeds performed right in front of the big brass.
Vesalainen is still a good player who possesses the shot, size and offensive awareness to eventually crack the Jets’ roster. However, it’s tough to see how his return to Europe allowed him to make any progress toward that goal or improve his skills.
Vesalainen Won’t Be in Jets’ Jersey Down the Stretch
Although Vesalainen could technically join the Jets down the stretch and into the playoffs, there’s absolutely no way that will happen for a couple of reasons.
First, if he suits up for fewer than 10 NHL games this season, his entry-level contract (ELC) slides. The slide extends his contract a year, meaning the Jets would control him through 2021-22 even though he signed in 2018. The Jets would be stupid to burn a year of his ELC at this point.
Second, the Jets have a full complement of healthy forwards, Par Lindholm in the press box and Appleton on the Moose. Those two are more equipped to help the team should injuries arise than a rookie of six career games who hasn’t played a game in North America for four months.
One option the Jets have — likely the most logical one — is to assign Vesalainen to the Moose for their playoff push. If they do, they may be able to eke a few positives out of what has otherwise been a stagnant season for their first-round pick. Whether he’d give a wholehearted effort in the AHL now after refusing to stay there in November is a question mark, though.
The other option is to let him vie for a spot on Finland’s World Championship roster. However, Pekka Jalonen, one of the greatest authorities on hockey in Finland, doesn’t think Vesalainen could make the team. That would lead to the worst-case scenario explored off the top — that he goes from March all the way to October without playing at all.
Time, as always, will tell if Vesalainen’s choice was a poor one. Come next season’s training camp, if he’s still not capable of being a full-time NHL contributor, it’ll prove his European excursion was a waste of time. In that case, he’ll have to pay his dues in the AHL like most prospects and do the learning he should have done this season. Flying the coop won’t be an option.