December 10, 2019

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Vesalainen struggling to find comfort zone in NHL

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Left-winger Kristian Vesalainen played in the KHL in 2018-19.</p>


Left-winger Kristian Vesalainen played in the KHL in 2018-19.

Kristian Vesalainen takes a long pause, seemingly lost in thought, as he attempts to answer a fairly simple question: what have you liked about your training camp?

Turns out, not a whole lot.

"I’ve tried to work hard," the 20-year-old Finnish winger offered up on Tuesday morning at Bell MTS Iceplex, before turning to some critical self-evaluation. "I think I have to show a little bit more to do with the offensive game. Obviously I just try to do my own things on the ice but I think it hasn’t worked out so far."

Vesalainen, who possesses an NHL-quality shot, hadn’t put a single one on net in his previous two pre-season games heading into action Tuesday night in Calgary. That’s surprising, considering he’s been given ample opportunity with other offensive players, including plenty of power-play time.

It’s also a bit concerning considering Vesalainen is a player the Jets are counting on to play a bigger role this season, especially with high-scoring forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor still dealing with contract disputes and not in camp.

"I just haven’t played how I can in the offensive zone. I haven’t had much time with the puck, too, so I have to show that to them," said Vesalainen, who had one assist in five NHL games last season. "I know with myself, I haven’t shot any pucks lately. You can’t score if you’re not taking those shots, so I have to shoot more."

He was a non-factor again Tuesday in a 2-0 Jets loss, failing to register a shot on goal and being on the ice for one Flames marker in 14:40 of ice time.

Vesalainen’s season got off to a rough start when he and teammate Sami Niku were involved in a two-vehicle crash while driving to the rink for the first day of training camp, leaving them with minor injuries that kept them out of the main group sessions for a few days.

Jets head coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday that incident set 2017 first-rounder Vesalainen back a bit, just as going back to the KHL did last season shortly after being sent down to the Manitoba Moose.

"He’s a skilled man. He’s a good skater. The biggest adjustment when these guys come over is the smaller sheet of ice with bigger and faster men in a really defined game," Maurice said.

"When you have a skilled player who’s smart and reads the game, once he gets his pace up and realizes he can do all those things he used to do, he just has to do them all faster... then he’s going to have a little bit more open time and the game will feel to him like it slows down.

"He’s a more physically developed player than he was last year at this time. He played in the KHL, so he played against men. So I think he is stronger. Because of the big sheet of ice, I don’t think he ever got to learn to adjust to the rink size last year. But he will this year."

Vesalainen, who doesn’t have an out clause to return to Europe, said he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself.

His goal is to be with the Jets, not the Moose.

"Every day is important here, so I have to make it count," he said.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre

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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