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This article was published 25/6/2019 (615 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Kristian Vesalainen forced his way onto the Winnipeg Jets roster out of training camp in 2018 but didn’t make it to the end of October — the start of a roller-coaster ride for the talented youngster.
The way the NHL club’s roster now shapes up, expect the door to be wide open this fall for the big left-winger, although he’s taking a more low-key approach to his future than he did a year ago.
Last summer, he arrived at Jets development camp brimming with confidence, telling reporters, "I think I’m a little bit more all-around player (than Finnish countryman Patrik Laine)," as he described his strong desire to crack the 2018-19 starting lineup despite a highly competitive camp with few forward jobs available.
On Tuesday, Vesalainen made it sound like playing for the NHL club this fall isn’t the be-all, end-all.
"Actually, I haven’t (thought) about that that much. I just want to train and we’ll see what happens. You just have to work hard and see what you’re going to bring to the table," he said following Day 2 of Jets development camp.
More than 40 of Winnipeg’s prospects, including 22 forwards, did physicals and on-ice testing Monday, and will continue to skate through Friday at Bell MTS Iceplex.
While they’ve all got pages on the hockeyDB.com registry, Vesalainen is the only player with any NHL games played beside his name. And, thus, he remains the most intriguing forward at camp, his third since being taken by the Jets in the first round (24th overall) of the 2017 NHL draft in Chicago.
Only 20, he has size, a teeming skill set and experience with the North America game, but it’s not just his on-ice play that aids Vesalainen in in his quest for full-time work with the Jets.
His organization-friendly entry-level contract — still three full seaons — is attractive as well.
But he’s still a prospect and the Jets’ hockey-operations staff must feel he needs the work this week, particularly after an up-and-down 2018-19 season that significantly beefed up his frequent-flyer miles.
He played only five games for the Jets, registering an assist, before he was assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the AHL. He stayed for about four weeks, scoring three goals and chipping in five assists, before flexing the power he had to choose his destination and head home to play for Jokerit of the KHL.
The 6-3, 210-pound forward admits confidence was in short supply in Helsinki.
"When you have those few five games you don’t play that well, get that much pucks," he explained. "So it’s gonna lower your confidence a little bit. That went on a little bit too long."
After finishing the regular season with six goals and 17 points in 31 games with Jokerit, he saw limited duty in six playoffs games.
He blames no one but himself.
"Just when you don’t play good, obviously, you’re not going to get any ice time. Same as it’s here. If you don’t play good you’re not going to get ice time," said Vesalainen.
He could have stepped away from hockey for the season after a disappointing first tour of duty on this side of the pond, however, he made the choice to rejoin Manitoba for its final 14 games, contributing a goal and four assists. Meagre statistics but a demonstration of his willingness to push himself to get better, on smaller ice surfaces on the continent where he wants to make his mark.
The Jets weren’t happy when he chose to bolt for Finland, yet he redeemed himself when he came back to play for Moose head coach Pascal Vincent in March.
"The more important thing was when their season was done and him coming back, that was totally voluntary. That was something, for us, we had no control over, but he wanted to come back and play for the Moose," said Cheveldayoff.
Vesalainen figures the oddball season will help him in the long run.
"I think it was good for me to come back here and play those last games in the AHL, end the season good. I like to come back. I think it was good for me," he said.
"We’ll see what happens. I’m just trying to work hard. Hopefully I’m gonna take a spot in the NHL."
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).