The likelihood of a Finnish player turning heads at Winnipeg Jets development camp was high with five solid young prospects — including 2019 draft picks Ville Heinola and Henri Nikkanen — on the ice.
However, Joona Luoto likely wasn't the first name that came to mind when the week began.
The 21-year-old undrafted forward, generously listed at 6-3, 190 pounds, was signed by the Jets to a three-year, two-way contract two weeks ago. He's never been much of a scorer, firing 21 goals in 129 games while adding a paltry 17 helpers in three seasons with Tappara of the Finnish Liiga.
He's a familiar face to a few Jets, including sniper Patrik Laine and Kristian Vesalainen, but came with very little fanfare.
But Luoto clearly has some upside, demonstrating a gritty, hard-charging performance over four days on the ice that culminated with the lone goal for Team White in Friday's one-hour scrimmage at Bell MTS Iceplex. He's got plenty of speed and wasn't hesitant to engage physically in a few battles along the wall, with the Jets brass watching intently from behind the glass.
A likely candidate for a role with the Manitoba Moose, Luoto said he's energized by the prospects of playing pro in a hockey-crazed city such as Winnipeg.
"I’ve been playing two years (pro) in Finland. I’ve been a little bit stuck there. I like to have a fresh start here in North America. It’s good for me to be here and my playing style is (suited) better here in the small rink," he said. "I’m just the kind of person who goes out and works hard every day to do what it takes. I’ve been working hard and now I’m getting closer to that (dream) of becoming an NHL player, but I have to do so much work."
There wasn't a pile of risk involved in his signing for an organization clearly in need of forward depth. Free agents Brandon Tanev and Par Lindholm are headed out, while Vesalainen and Mason Appleton appear ready to make the jump full time to the Jets, leaving some big holes to fill on the Moose roster.
If Luoto's making American Hockey League money his contact places no undo stress on the club's salary-cap situation.
Earlier this week, Moose head coach Pascal Vincent said Luoto and another newcomer, Russian forward Andrei Chibisov, 26, a five-year veteran of the KHL, conduct themselves like pros.
"They’re a bit older players and you can tell on the ice. Physically they’re a bit more mature. Because of their age, you can see they’re ready to make that step. After a few days you look at those guys and the bottom line is they’re pretty good hockey players," he said.
Vesalainen suffered a minor leg injury during Thursday's session and was held out of the Friday scrimmage, which capped off the annual development camp. He was in the dressing room talking with players following a 2-1 win for Team Blue and appeared no worse for wear.
Chibisov fired the scrimmage winner, while free-agent invite Chase Gresock, a student-athlete at Division I Merrimack College north of Boston, also scored.
The Jets added a new component to the off-ice portion of development camp, giving all players an in-depth session on mental health.
"That was one thing that was really positive with young kids today, with their openness and willingness to talk about mental health awareness," said Jimmy Roy, the club's director of player development. "We wanted to show them that we support that in any way we can and we want to be proactive. We’re here to help. It was a real positive step for us at our development camp."
Another topic discussed with the players was the appropriate use of social media.
"There are pressures off the ice as well and you try and help kids understand how they can communicate their message and do it properly," said Roy. "It’s (about) how you carry yourself and what situations you’re in, just to be aware (of those things)."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).