Kristian Vesalainen intends on showcasing a transformed game the next time he auditions for the NHL.
The Winnipeg Jets prospect acknowledged Thursday his previous attempts to solidify employment at the forward position were derailed by an inability to alter the perception he’s more than just a one-trick pony — and that offensive flair has only occasionally wandered out of the barn.
But Vesalainen said he’s focusing less on scoring in Finland and more on strengthening crucial elements of his game that have, to date, been in short supply.
"That’s one thing I’ve thought about a lot, having to play a different type of game," he said in conversation with the Free Press. "Obviously, the top six (forward group) in Winnipeg is really good and it’s going to be hard to take someone’s spot. If I’m going to make the team, I probably have to start somewhere else, for sure. That means I have to do different things."
The Jets loaned Vesalainen to HPK of the elite Finnish Liiga in late October. The team is based in Hämeenlinna, a city of about 70,000 people located between his hometown of Helsinki and Tampere. The 6-4, 210-pound winger will make his way back to Winnipeg in time for training camp — whenever preparations for the 2020-21 NHL season begin — with a renewed approach.
"I’ve been focusing so much this year on the (defensive) zone game. I have a big body and I have to use it, just skating hard and checking more. So, that’s been a few things I’ve tried to do here in the Finnish league," said Vesalainen, 21. "For sure, obviously, it’s going to be a big thing if I crack the roster this time because there’s so many good players."
Indeed, the Jets are well-stocked with high-end offensive skill on the left wing, as perennial 30-goal scorer Kyle Connor and three-time 25-goal man Nikolaj Ehlers have cemented themselves on the top lines. Andrew Copp, meanwhile, is the jack of all trades of the group, an effective checker with offensive upside who can play in any situation.
In addition, Jets head coach Paul Maurice has never been shy about his affinity for tossing veteran Mathieu Perreault over the boards, while Jansen Harkins made a huge impression a year ago and will be given every chance to earn a full-time role.
So, where does that leave Vesalainen, a 2017 first-round pick with just one assist in five NHL games (2018-19) to his credit — but still with two years remaining on his entry-level contract?
"I feel like I’ve worked hard because, obviously, I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. But it’s different when you play in Europe, it’s easier because there’s not that many battles for spots. That’s the one thing that you have to be aware of when you go to NHL training camp, that you have to take somebody’s place... always fighting for a spot," he said.
"Do whatever it takes. Get more bodychecks. Be a more straightforward player. Be in front of the net more. Shoot more. You don’t have to do the magical things every time on the ice."
Vesalainen made the big club out of training camp in 2018 but was demoted to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and then later headed to the KHL.
He’s coming off his first full season of North American hockey, supplying 12 goals and 18 assists in 60 games in 2019-20 with the Moose, Jets’ minor-league affiliate. Down the stretch, he was a fixture on a line with another of Winnipeg’s top prospects, David Gustafsson.
The two months prior to the shutdown were nothing but positive, he said.
"It was a rocky start last year but when the games went on I played better and got a little bit more comfortable in the game, on the North American game. (Moose head coach) Pascal (Vincent) is great, I like him a lot. We had a couple of good, long talks. We talked about everything, hockey and life. That’s the one thing he does, gives you some reassurance.
"I feel like when you talk to your coach, you get more comfortable on the ice when you have that bond. That’s a big key, for sure."
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, Maurice and the rest of the hockey department have always taken a patient approach with their youngsters, however, Vesalainen maintains he has to make a resounding impression with his next opportunity.
"When you’re a young guy, you expect a lot from yourself. You expect to go to the NHL and play right away. Obviously, that’s not how it goes all the time but I didn’t maybe realize that at first," he said. "Now, after a few years, I realize that you have to put in the work every day. You can’t just do it with your talents. If you are working hard and you’re good enough, you’ll get the call. You try every shift and play good, so that somebody can see that you’re an NHL player.
"That’s been my main goal since I got drafted. But every year you learn a little bit more about yourself, what you have to improve on. So, I think I’ve worked hard this summer and now on the ice, and I’m excited for training camp."
Vesalainen said he kept a rigid off-ice training regimen this summer and skated as much as possible during the months of the pandemic when Finnish health officials allowed facilities to be open.
He scored four goals and added three assists in the first five games after returning to Finland, but has cooled off with just one helper in his last four outings for struggling HPK (4-8-6), currently on a three-game losing skid. Vesalainen credited the excitement of finally competing again after an undesirable eight-month hiatus as a contributing factor to the red-hot start and is now feeling the effects of the long layoff.
"I had a good amount of time to get in shape, so that wasn’t a problem for me. For sure, the first few games were good. It was good to score right away and I didn’t have to think about goals after that. But obviously it’s tough to be involved with just normal hockey playing because I hadn’t played for a long time," he said.
"The biggest thing is consistency, especially if you want to play in the NHL. That’s the thing you want to find, that routine you get into, to play good every game."
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).