What would you call an NHL roster that included David Pastrnak, Shea Theodore, Tanner Pearson, Phillip Danault, Travis Konecny, Anthony Beauvillier, Brady Skjei, Rickard Rakell, Jared McCann, Jack Roslovic, Adrian Kempe and Brett Howden?
Pretty darn competitive, right? Pastrnak and Theodore are among the best at their positions, while the other 10 skaters are no slouches either, carving out impressive careers and making significant contributions on their respective teams.
Now what if I told you every one of those players was a late first-round selection between 2011 and 2016, somewhere between the 24th and 30th-overall pick? Which brings me to the point of today’s little hot stove session, and the consensus in some quarters that Winnipeg Jets forward Kristian Vesalainen, at the tender age of 22, is a great big bust.
The 6-3, 207-pound Finnish winger was chosen 24th-overall in the 2017 draft and is still searching for his first NHL goal. Vesalainen has dressed in just 17 big-league games so far (21 if you include playoffs), with just two assists to his name. That lacklustre production is even more glaring when you consider the rather high bar that’s been set around here when it comes to first-rounders.
Mark Scheifele in 2011. Jacob Trouba in 2012. Josh Morrissey in 2013. Nikolaj Ehlers in 2014. Both Kyle Connor and Roslovic (also 24th-overall) in 2015. And Patrik Laine and Logan Stanley in 2016. That last name is an interesting one, since some of the same folks writing Vesalainen off were probably doing the same with Stanley — at least until recently. Together, they were seen as the first two swings and misses by Kevin Cheveldayoff and his scouting staff, who seemingly could do no wrong when they got to the podium for the first time every summer.
But a funny thing happened last season, as Stanley emerged in a big way and carved out a role on the Jets blue-line, bringing a towering presence and physical element that was sorely missing. Winnipeg protected him in the Seattle expansion draft, and he’s likely set for a third-pairing role with Dylan DeMelo this year on what is suddenly a deep blue-line that’s been boosted with the additions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon. At 23, there’s still plenty of room for Stanley to grow his game, and his future looks fairly bright.
Now the spotlight shifts to Vesalainen, who is staring at a golden opportunity as he heads into what will be his fourth professional training camp starting next week.
In my eyes, he’s going to be one of the most intriguing storylines early in this new campaign.
There are a handful of forward jobs available, from a spot on the third line beside Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp, to one of the three positions up for grabs on what will be a revamped fourth line. That’s because Mason Appleton (expansion draft), Mathieu Perreault (free agency, Montreal), Nate Thompson (free agency, Philadelphia) and Trevor Lewis (free agency, Calgary) all moved on this summer.
Vesalainen will be competing with the likes of fellow young draft picks in Jansen Harkins (2nd round, 2015), David Gustafsson (2nd round, 2018) and Cole Perfetti (1st round, 2020), and veteran free agent signings such as Dominic Toninato and Riley Nash, for those spots.
And it says here he has all the tools necessary to not only win a job, but do it extremely well.
I’d love to see him get a look with Copp and Lowry, even if it might mean having to play on the right-side (he prefers the left). Vesalainen has the frame and hockey IQ to handle the assignment, along with the defensive acumen to go with a natural offensive game we haven’t really seen emerge on an NHL stage just yet. He’s showed it at the AHL level, with 17 goals and 31 assists in 88 games with the Manitoba Moose.
To me, Vesalainen’s biggest fault so far is to play too tentative at times, specifically passing up prime shooting and scoring chances. That’s not unusual for young players, especially when surrounded by such a talented forward core such as Winnipeg’s. The natural instinct may be to defer to others. In that sense, I’d like to see Vesalainen get a bit more selfish when he has the puck on his stick. He’s got a heck of a shot, as we’ve seen again during the first two days of the pro minicamp going down at Bell MTS Iceplex. He just needs the confidence to start using it more.
Jets coach Paul Maurice said on Thursday that Vesalainen will get plenty of work in the six pre-season games on the docket after appearing in just 18 total tilts last year -- 12 with the Jets, six with the Moose. He’s not going to be handed a job, of course. But he can earn one if he comes to camp with the same drive and determination that Stanley did last season, where he basically made it impossible for the coaching staff to sit him out or send him down.
Development is not a straight line, and everyone goes at their own pace. A few, like Laine, jump right into the NHL and never look back. But the vast majority -- whether it was Scheifele needing more time in junior or the likes of Morrissey, Connor, Roslovic and most definitely Stanley needing plenty of seasoning on the farm -- take a longer road.
As the list I presented above shows, there’s no shortage of quality NHL players who have emerged from a similar, or slightly lower, draft spot in the years between the return of the NHL to Winnipeg and Vesalainen’s selection year. Most of them took a few years to find their footing.
No, he’s likely never going to emerge into a superstar like Pastrnak, but that hardly makes him a wasted pick. For a fun exercise, go look through the entire 2017 list, and show me a player you’d rather have in the system that was selected after Vesalainen that year. Good luck. There’s not a whole lot there, although much of that is due to the fact it still so early to make definitive judgments on most of these young prospects.
If Vesalainen can eventually contribute to the Jets in a similar vein as fellow forwards Pearson, Danault, Konecny, Beauvillier, Rakell, McCann, Roslovic, Kempe and Howden, Winnipeg will have another first-round winner in the fold. And there’s no time like the present to start making that happen.
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.