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Jets first-round pick lighting it up in top Finnish men's league

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2018 (305 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Attention, Winnipeg Jets fans. We interrupt what has been a pretty special season so far to bring you some news that should have you positively giddy.

The team looks to have another good one on the way. Like, potentially really good.

Kristian Vesalainen, selected 24th overall in the first round of last summer's NHL draft, is having a magical season as he plays in the top men's league in Finland. The 18-year-old power forward is putting up the kind of numbers rarely seen by a player his age.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/2/2018 (305 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Finnish forward Kristian Vesalainen at the annual Winnipeg Jets summer development camp at Bell MTS Iceplex in 2017.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Finnish forward Kristian Vesalainen at the annual Winnipeg Jets summer development camp at Bell MTS Iceplex in 2017.

Attention, Winnipeg Jets fans. We interrupt what has been a pretty special season so far to bring you some news that should have you positively giddy.

The team looks to have another good one on the way. Like, potentially really good.

Kristian Vesalainen, selected 24th overall in the first round of last summer's NHL draft, is having a magical season as he plays in the top men's league in Finland. The 18-year-old power forward is putting up the kind of numbers rarely seen by a player his age.

MEASURING UP

A summary of the all-time highest-scoring under-19 players in the Finnish Elite League.

MEASURING UP

Most points in a single-season, all time, while playing in the Finnish Elite League prior to turning 19

PLAYER/DRAFT YEAR/GAMES PLAYED/GOALS/ASSISTS/POINTS

Teemu Pulkkinen (2010-11) — 55 18-36-54 (currently assigned by the Vegas Golden Knights to the American Hockey League)

Aleksander Barkov (2012-13) — 53 21-27-48 (playing with the Florida Panthers)

Sebastian Aho (2015-16) — 45 20-25-45 (playing with the Carolina Hurricanes)

Olli Jokinen (1996-97) — 50 14-27-41 (retired after playing 1,231 career NHL games)

Mikael Granlund (2009-10) — 43 13-27-40 (playing with the Minnesota Wild)

Kristian Vesalainen (2017-18) — 41 19-19-38

•••

There are 15 active players in the NHL from Finland who played at least one more season in the Finnish Elite League after they were drafted. Here's how they did in that season, with Kristian Vesalainen's season included for comparison. Players ranked by points-per-game.

PLAYER/DRAFT PICK/YEAR/GAMES PLAYED/GOALS/ASSISTS/POINTS/POINTS-PER-GAME

Sebastian Aho, 35th overall, 2015: 45 20-25-45 1.00

Kristian Vesalainen, 24th overall 2017: 41 19-19-38 .93

Mikael Granlund, ninth overall 2010: 39 8-28-36 .92

Jori Lehtara, 65th overall 2008: 58 9-38-47 .81

Markus Granlund, 45th overall 2011: 47 15-19-34 .72

Joel Armia, 16th overall 2011: 54 18-20-38 .70

Teuvo Teravainen, 18th overall 2012: 44 13-18-31 .70

Artturi Lehkonen, 55th overall 2013: 33 7-13-20 .61

Miikka Salomäki, 52nd overall 2011: 40 12-9-21 .53

Joonas Donskoi, 99th overall 2010: 52 16-11-27 .52

Kasperi Kapanen, 22nd overall 2014: 41 11-10-21 .51

Valtteri Filppula, 95th overall 2002: 49 5-13-18 .37

Jussi Jokinen, 192nd overall 2001: 54 10-6-16 .30

Iiro Pakarinen, 184th overall 2011: 54 10-3-13 .24

Leo Komarov, 180th overall 2006: 49 3-9-12 .24

Mikko Koivu, sixth overall 2001: 48 4-3-7 .15

Vesalainen has 19 goals and 19 assists in 41 games with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League, otherwise know as Liiga. To put that in perspective, only five Finnish players have posted more points in a single season in that league prior to hitting their 19th birthday. And Vesalainen has played fewer games than all of them, meaning he could further climb the charts before his year is done.

The Free Press spoke with Vesalainen and his coach, Antti Pennanen, in telephone interviews Monday from Finland.

"It's not usual. He's a special kid, I think," said Pennanen. "This is something that doesn't happen."

Vesalainen — who at 6-3 and 207 pounds has previously said he models his game after Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin — admits there was some adjustment to being in a league where the majority of players are men, in some cases more than a decade older than him with a wealth of pro experience.

"In the beginning it was tough, but I think now it's very good for me," Vesalainen said. "I don't know if my own game has improved so much, but I think our team is playing a lot better, so it's easy to play better. It's been great for me."

Vesalainen spent the past two seasons in the Swedish Hockey League, with just one goal and five assists in 26 games last season. He also joined HPK for nine games near the end of the season, registering just one goal and no assists.

He first turned heads on an international stage last spring when he was named MVP of the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. He had six goals and seven assists in seven games for Finland, which captured silver.

<p>Vesalainen puts on a Winnipeg Jets jersey after being selected by the team during the first round of the 2017 NHL entry draft in Chicago.</p>

NAM Y. HUH / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Vesalainen puts on a Winnipeg Jets jersey after being selected by the team during the first round of the 2017 NHL entry draft in Chicago.

Winnipeg had the 13th pick last year, but traded it to Vegas so they would select Chris Thorburn in the expansion draft and stay away from other exposed players, including Toby Enstrom. The Golden Knights selected Ontario Hockey League forward Nick Suzuki with the pick.

Vesalainen didn't attend training camp with the Jets, signing a one-year deal to play a full season with HPK. It's a move that appears to have paid off.

"He was having difficulties at the beginning of the season. But after that he's been really good, really good. After world juniors he's been even better than before that. Of course, I think he got some self-confidence after world juniors," said Pennanen. "He's a good kid, cheerful and open-minded and coachable. I think this is one of his strengths, he wants to learn every day new skills and things. So he's coachable. He has great confidence, but he's not arrogant."

Finland went 2-2-0 in round-robin play at the world junior championship, but was eliminated in the quarter-finals with a shootout loss to the Czech Republic. Vesalainen led the team in scoring with two goals and four assists in five games.

"I think we had a great team and I thought we would go much more longer. I thought we could get a medal from there. I was a little bit disappointed, but I think I played pretty well," he said.

Vesalainen has scored 11 goals and added eight assists in 15 games since returning last month from the world juniors in Buffalo. Many have been of the highlight-reel variety and made their rounds on social media, with Jets fans gleefully sharing them with followers.

"I don't have Twitter so I don't see that," Vesalainen said Monday with a laugh. "Absolutely that's great that they are watching my games and highlights. It's nice."

The Jets have been keeping a close eye on Vesalainen; co-ordinator of player development Jimmy Roy spent a week in Finland earlier this season.

Roy said Monday he came away impressed.

"Kristian is great kid and working with some really good coaches. I think they both deserve a lot of credit for how Kristian's game has taken off after a slow start. Kristian has a good understanding of what he needs to do to build his identity as a player and his path to becoming an NHL player," said Roy.

"As like every young player, there’s areas of his game that he needs to work on and become more consistent with, but because he has such a great work ethic and commitment, there’s been some real good progress in his game."

Pennanen said he has no doubt Vesalainen is a future NHLer and could make the jump as early as next season.

"He has improved a lot this season. One-on-one skills, battling skills, he uses his teammates better then when he came here. He's a hard worker, practises a lot every day. I think he can play. We use him in many different situations. He's versatile," said Pennanen. "When he came here, he was like an individual player. Now he understands better how he can use his teammates, but he still he has to improve that if he wants to be an NHL player, because the game is so fast he has to use his teammates, and how to use his strengths in a small area. Because every situation is happening so fast."

Vesalainen made it clear he wants to make the Jets as quickly as possible. With the Jets having a pair of regular-season games against the Florida Panthers next fall slated for Helsinki, Vesalainen said he'd love to be in the lineup along with fellow Finns Patrik Laine and Joel Armia.

"I think it's great to have games here. All the Finnish Jets fans and NHL fans can see the games. I think it's going to be pretty great," he said. "It's going to be one of my goals next year to (make the team). But I just am thinking about this season, not thinking so much about next season. Just play this season and see how it goes, then we'll see after that."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @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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