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This article was published 20/11/2018 (883 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CALGARY — The curious case of Kristian Vesalainen has taken one final plot twist. And now the 19-year-old prized Winnipeg Jets prospect is taking his hockey sticks and heading home to Helsinki.
Like sands through the hourglass, the last several days have played out like a soap opera. But in an ending many believed was inevitable, Vesalainen is returning to Finland to play the rest of this season in the KHL with Jokerit, which traded for his rights last week.
The Jets cleared the way for Vesalainen on Tuesday by sending him back to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League. That will allow him to exercise an "out" clause in his entry-level contract, which only kicked in on Saturday, that gives him the right to bolt if he’s not in the NHL.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke on the latest developments Tuesday afternoon following his team’s practice in Calgary. He made it clear the organization’s preference was for Vesalainen to remain with the Moose and continue adjusting to the North American-style of game.
"From our perspective we believe in the American Hockey League model for development," said Cheveldayoff.
Vesalainen and his camp obviously see it differently, even though the power forward has put up three goals and five assists in eight games with the Moose while playing significant minutes.
Cheveldayoff said it’s difficult to monitor a player’s progress when they are overseas.
"Certainly when a player is in your American Hockey League team, you’re dealing with him every day," said the GM. "He played well with the Moose and obviously accomplished some things there. The biggest thing for all players is to play, certainly for a 19-year-old player."
The Jets called up Vesalainen last Friday and brought him along for the start of their four-game road trip. It was a bizarre move, considering they had no obvious need for another player at the time. The timing was certainly suspect, considering the recall happened just hours before his out clause kicked in, and days after reports of his Finnish exit surfaced.
Cheveldayoff said there was nothing nefarious about the move. Rather, getting Vesalainen back up allowed him to have discussions with the skilled forward about his immediate future. Vesalainen apparently couldn’t be persuaded to change his mind.
The Jets could have blocked the KHL return by keeping Vesalainen with the club as a healthy scratch for the foreseeable future, but have decided against that.
"If we felt he was ready to contribute on a regular basis up here, he’d be here," Cheveldayoff said.
Vesalainen made the Jets out of training camp and played the first five games of the season. He had a secondary assist in the opener in St. Louis, but saw his ice time gradually reduced while making little, if any, impact in a fourth-line role. After several games as a healthy scratch, Vesalainen was sent down to the Moose with the idea of aiding his development by giving him significant playing time and, hopefully, some confidence.
It appeared to be working.
"If Kristian was here three years ago, he could come in (and play) in the top-six, but things change. We had a bunch of kids come in and develop really well. Some of those guys played for our team, the Moose, and were really well-coached. So we can develop players in our system and we would like the opportunity to do that," Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday of how the organization, now deep with young prospects, can afford to be more patient with development.
"I get it. I get that want to play in the NHL, but you’ve got to earn it."
Perhaps adjusting not only to a different style of game, but also a different culture, played a role in Vesalainen’s decision. After all, it can’t be easy for a young player to travel halfway across the world and try to adjust on the fly.
Maurice doesn’t believe finishing the season in the KHL will impede Vesalainen’s development. Since he has played less than 10 games with the Jets, this season will not count towards the three-year entry-level contract he signed.
"There are good leagues over there. 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," said Maurice.
In the end, Vesalainen’s road home included an extra 4,000 kilometres in the air to Vancouver and back, plus perhaps a few extra days of waiting, but the final result is the same. Vesalainen was making US$70,000 in the AHL (compared to US$925,000 when in the NHL), but Cheveldayoff doesn’t believe money has anything to do with his decision. It’s not clear how much he will make in the KHL.
"I don’t think it’s financial. When we did the contract with him this summer, it’s not unheard of that there’s different opportunities in those regards. I liken it to the opportunity when you send a kid back to junior. He’s 19 years old, so you’re just looking at him continuing his development and it will be an opportunity for him to do that," said Cheveldayoff.
"Again, it all goes back to everyone’s going to develop in their own way. He’s still a very young player. He had a great year over in Finland last year, and this will be a new challenge for him."
Vesalainen would only be able to re-join the Jets organization when his KHL team’s season ends, just like a player who is returned to junior hockey would be able to do. In the KHL, the regular season ends in late February, with playoffs running through April.
Vesalainen will also likely have an opportunity to play for Finland at the world junior championship, just as he did last December, provided his KHL club allows it.
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.