October 23, 2019

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Jets rookies look to make an impression in tournament

His resumé certainly stands out amongst his peers. Now the challenge is for Kristian Vesalainen to make a similar impression on the ice.

Vesalainen, 20, is Winnipeg's most notable prospect to have travelled to Belleville, Ont., for the Rookie Showcase tournament. The Jets hopefuls will play three games against future Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators beginning tonight, with additional games on Sunday and Monday.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Kristian Vesalainen during the Jets rookie camp at Bell MTS Iceplex Thursday morning. “Great to be back. I’m excited to start a new season," he said.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kristian Vesalainen during the Jets rookie camp at Bell MTS Iceplex Thursday morning. “Great to be back. I’m excited to start a new season," he said.

"Great to be back. I’m excited to start a new season," Vesalainen, the 24th-overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft, said Thursday after his team skated at Bell MTS Iceplex prior to getting on a plane. "Just get a good feeling, playing with the guys. Just get touches on the ice and obviously show what I can do."

JETS ROOKIE SHOWCASE SCHEDULE

Friday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Ottawa

Sunday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Montreal

Monday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Ottawa

Friday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Ottawa

Sunday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Montreal

Monday, 6 p.m. — Winnipeg vs. Ottawa

JETS ROOKIE SHOWCASE ROSTER

GOALIES (2)

Adam Carlson, Griffen Outhouse

DEFENCE (9)

Jacob Cederholm, Declan Chisholm, Leon Gawanke, Luke Green, Ville Heinola, Johnathan Kovacevic, Hayden Shaw, Giovanni Vallati, Scott Walford

FORWARDS (13)

Ryan Chyzowski, David Gustafsson, Joona Luoto, Bobby Lynch, Cole Maier, Kamerin Nault, Cedric Pare, James Phela, Sergey Popov, Kristian Reichel, C.J. Suess, Luke Toporowski, Kristian Vesalainen

INJURED (2)

Mikhail Berdin, Skyler McKenzie.

There's no question Vesalainen has the tools, and there should be plenty of opportunity for him to translate that into a bigger role with the Jets this season. The big, skilled winger made the team out of camp last year, recording one assist in five games before being relegated to the press box as a healthy scratch, then sent to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL for further seasoning.

After playing a handful of games, he used an opt-out clause in his entry-level contract to head back to Finland and play in the KHL. Vesalainen rejoined the Moose in March for the stretch drive of the regular season, scoring four goals and adding nine assists in 22 games.

He impressed his bench boss, Pascal Vincent, who will lead the group of prospects this weekend in Ontario.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>David Gustafsson.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

David Gustafsson.

"I want him to be confident. I want him to own that confidence. I want him to go there and try to be a difference-maker. He's fighting for a spot with the Jets. He's got experience now. He's still a young player. But I want to see a guy that will win his one-on-one battles, will bring the puck to the net. He knows the system, so that shouldn't be an issue," said Vincent.

"We need to see that kind of player where he's leading the pack and he's got confidence and he's driving the net. The size that he has and his ability to protect the puck, he's got to win those one-on-one battles. If he does that there, that's going to be a good warm-up for the big camp."

Vincent has also given Vesalainen some additional responsibilities this weekend in designating him an alternate captain.

"Really enjoyed working with him last year, even before he left. But when he came back his attitude was outstanding. He wanted to come back, he wanted to learn... so yeah, I want him to take charge," said Vincent.

"He's still a young guy. But I think he's ready to push the pace."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Ville Heinola.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Ville Heinola.

Other high-profile members of the Jets team on the 24-player roster for the tournament include 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2018 second-rounder David Gustafsson. There are a handful of other draft picks as well, plus some additional free agents who are being given a look.

"I don’t know what to expect from the camp this week, so it’s exciting," said Heinola, 18, who is getting his first taste of the smaller North American ice surface. "A little different game here. Just learn how to play. Of course the ice is smaller, so everything happens faster."

Goaltender Mikhail Berdin and forward Skyler McKenzie, who both spent time with the Moose last year, will miss the tournament due to minor injuries. C.J. Suess, Luke Green, Kristian Reichel and Jacob Cederholm are others from last year's AHL squad who are suiting up.

"We're going there to compete. We are going to wear the Winnipeg Jets jersey, so we're going there to compete. But for the players, they're going there to showcase themselves. And we told them what we're going to evaluate. Shift length, intensity, discipline, driving the net, playing the game," said Vincent.

"We're not going into real intense details about how we play our systems, but it's going to be about competing. We're looking to find the right players for the next generation of Jets.

Vesalainen said he worked on his skating his summer and is ready to take another step in his development. The fact Jets forward Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor are without contracts and could miss the start of training camp might provide an even bigger opportunity.

"I don’t know, you’d have to ask the coach. Obviously I want to try and do everything I can to make the team," Vesalainen said in response to a question about what his role might be.

"Obviously there may not be as many forwards as last year. Hopefully that’s good for me."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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