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Photo Credit: © David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Kristian Vesalainen Another Draft-Day Home Run For Winnipeg

Say what you will of the Winnipeg Jets record on the ice in their still-young existence, their record at the draft table has been nearly immaculate. The latest example is 2017 first rounder Kristian Vesalainen.

It was a rocky draft year for the imposing Finnish youngster. He shuffled back and forth between two different leagues and, as might be expected, never gained any traction. His World Juniors weren’t much to write home about either with a goal and an assist in six games for a disappointing Finnish squad.

His U18 tournament, however, largely redeemed him in the eyes of at least the Winnipeg Jets scouts, and helped them see the considerable upside to his game. He piled up 13 points in seven games to lead the tournament in scoring.

Given that previous U18 scoring leaders in recent years include Auston Matthews, Tyson Jost, William Nylander and Connor McDavid, that puts Vesalainen in great company. The Jets clearly thought so enough to nab him at 24th overall last June.

The hope was that this year, Vesalainen would find a more permanent home somewhere and that would lead to increased production. So far, Vesalainen seems to enjoy being settled in one place.

Speaking of previous scoring leaders, the numbers Vesalainen is piling up compare favorably to those of, among others, Mikko Koivu (who was nowhere near a point per game in the Liiga until his draft year plus two). Couple that with a 6’3, 209-pound frame, and you’ve got a top prospect.

The Jets went so far as to say that if they would’ve kept the 13th overall pick instead of trading it to Vegas, they would still have used it on Vesailainen. While it raised dubious eyebrows at the time, it looks like they’d have been smart to do so now.

With eight goals and nineteen points in 26 games, Vesalainen is the leading scorer among players 20 and under in the Liiga despite playing six fewer games and being a year younger than his next closest competitor, Otto Koivula, a fourth-round pick of the New York Islands.

A big-bodied winger with a sneaky shot from the left side would fit right in on almost any roster, but if Vesalainen comes over next year he could really gel well with the forward core the Jets have built. Picture for a moment, among many other combinations, a line of Vesalainen on one wing, Patrik Laine on another, and Mark Scheifele in the middle.

I’ll give you a moment to stop salivating.

A World Juniors Encore

By all accounts, Finland is supposed to be quite the contender at this year’s World Junior Championships. Vesalainen and fellow 2017 first rounder Eeli Tolvanen are expected to do a lot of the lifting up front, and Canadian fans will get a good look at them (for many their first good look) on Boxing Day when they face Canada.

Chances are Canadian fans will learn in a hurry what Finnish fans already know. Vesalainen is a big-bodied, quick-shooting, smart-passing stud up front.

The fact is, Vesalainen could fall completely flat at the WJC and his season could still be considered a success. Finland, however, is expected to be a force with a strong defense and several skilled forwards. Give him some strong players to work with, and there’s no reason to think Vesalainen can’t shine.

After all, strong players have been somewhat lacking from Vesalainen’s floundering HPK squad. They sit 12th out of 15 teams and Vesalainen hasn’t been drowning in offensive help, yet he’s still been getting it done offensively.

I look forward to seeing what Vesalainen can do against his peers and with some other gifted players. Take a look at the first-rounder-heavy squad Finland’s assembled and you’ll see Vesalainen should have some terrific running mates.

Actually, looking at Finland’s roster it may well be that Vesalainen is in line for a gold medal. Whether or not the Finns can be considered a favorite in this event is up for debate, but they should provide Canada a stiff test on Boxing Day.

Vesalainen as a Jet

The immediate future for the talented winger is pretty clear, but Vesalainen’s long-term potential is especially enticing. As mentioned above, any team would be thrilled to have big, skilled forward in their prospect system.

Given the forward core the Jets have already assembled, many of whom are already entering their primes, the Jets could have another key piece of the puzzle in Vesalainen. Another cog in what is becoming one of the NHL’s deadliest offensive machines.

Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t been a perfect GM by any means. His tenure has been marked as much by the moves he hasn’t made as the ones he has (not trading for a goalie, not cutting loose certain players etc.) but his draft record has been almost beyond reproach.

Go down each and every draft the Jets have had and you can find examples of shrewd drafting in almost every round. Even the first round picks, which may seem the most obvious, stand above those of Chevy’s peers.

Yes, you can cherry pick examples of the Jets failures on the draft floor. Lukas Sutter at 39th overall in 2012 leaps to mind and some would stamp the bust label on 2016 first rounder Logan Stanley already, though I would disagree with the latter.

Yet for every Sutter and Kosmachuk (2012 was not a great year for Winnipeg after the first round) there’s a Connor Hellebuyck (I retract my statement about 2012) or an Adam Lowry or a Tucker Poolman or a Sami Niku.

Or, if all goes well, a Kristian Vesalainen.