The Winnipeg Jets have a handful of young players who fans would love to see get more ice time on a regular basis like Nic Petan, Jack Roslovic. They also have young players that fans would just like to see on the ice in a Jets uniform at all… Hello Sami Niku.
But none of those players have quite the urgency – or mystery – to their entire situation as it would seem Kristian Vesalainen’s has and that story took a whole new series of twists the past few days with a trade of his rights in the KHL, and a recall from the Manitoba Moose a day later.
Let’s first review how we got here.
August 26 – Vesalainen agrees to a three year entry level contract which comes with a catch… An out clause that allows Vesalainen to head back overseas for the 2018-19 season should he not make the Jets NHL roster. After a pre-season where he scored once in five games played but showed plenty of potential of what could be to come, he is named to the opening nigh roster.
October 4 – Kristian makes his NHL debut, plays 8:12 and picks up his first NHL point – a secondary assist on a third period Brandon Tanev goal.
October 19 – A little over two weeks into the season and just after five games, Vesalainen is sent down to the AHL. He doesn’t add any more points since his opening night assist and most nights looks like he is struggling to make plays with the puck. The lack of regular ice time also is a major factor in the demotion down to the Moose as three of his five games played sees him get less than seven minutes a night.
It’s widely thought that a move across the hallway to get in some more playing time with the Moose will help Vesalainen adjust to the smaller confines of a North American sized NHL rink where time and space to make plays and shoot the puck are much more limited than they are on a more wide open European ice surface. It’s also initially thought that the move is very temporary and that the Jets will call him up after a couple of games with the Moose.
October 26 – The Jets head off to Finland for their Global Series matchup with the Florida Panthers. Helsinki native Vesalainen stays behind.
November 10 – In his sixth game with the Moose having already collected four assists, Vesalainen scores his two first pro North American goals in a 6-2 home win over the Grand Rapids Griffins.
— Manitoba Moose (@ManitobaMoose) November 11, 2018
November 15 – Rumors start to swirl that Vesalainen may in fact be headed back to Europe as his hometown club Jokerit of the KHL purchases his rights. We suddenly find out that his out-clause does have a bit of a deadline (or kick in date, it depends who you asked) as November 17 seems to be decision day for the 19 year old Finn.
#NHLJets Kristian Vesalainen heading back to Europe next week and apparently to #Jokerit and #KHL. Jokerit bought Vesalainen's KHL rights from SKA St. Petersburgh today. https://t.co/1BS787QZQz #MBMoose #AHL #KHLfi
— Pekka Jalonen (@PekkaJalonen) November 15, 2018
November 16 – An even more interesting twist as the Jets re-call Vesalainen to the NHL roster. With Kristian on the main roster, he can not exercise his out clause which we not find out doesn’t actually have a deadline.
To try and keep this as simple as possible(though it is complex) there is no hard deadline for #NHLJets F Kristian Vesalainen to decide to return to Europe this season.If he's not in the NHL and chooses to continue his development there at some point,that's his choice (this year)
— Ken Wiebe (@WiebeSunSports) November 17, 2018
That night the Jets play the Buffalo Sabres and after the game Jets head coach Paul Maurice is asked about Vesalainen’s status with the club.
Paul Maurice on the Kristian Vesalainen call-up:
"We'll get him here, we'll get him working in some practices, and I'll leave the rest to management."
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) November 17, 2018
Maurice’s answer fails to really answer anything about what is going on and if anything leaves more doubt if the Jets really know what to do with him.
The prevailing thought is that Vesalainen has the tools and ability to play in the NHL even as early as this season, but even his most ardent supporter would have agreed that he struggled with timing and the spacing of an NHL game. In the AHL, he has the chance to hone that skill in and would maybe benefit more from ice time with the Moose than he would going back to the KHL with their international sized rinks.
But for a 19 year old, the lure of playing at home for a lot more money than you would riding a bus in the AHL would be significant, and it’s not like he won’t be able to develop his game in the KHL either, it just might not be the most optimal development.
From the Jets perspective, there remains a question of where exactly do you put Vesalinen into the lineup if you’re wanting to hang on to him? The Jets are already struggling a bit to make pieces like Patrik Laine and Mathieu Perreault fit with Laine seeing playing time on a checking line with Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev (not ideal) while Perreault is babysitting Petan and Roslovic on the Jets fourth line (really not ideal) and throwing Vesalinen into that mix either takes out Petan or Roslovic with only Roslovic waivers exempt and able to be sent down to the AHL if needed without risking another NHL club claiming him.
Colorado Could Be An Example
Like Vesalainen, Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen was a highly regarded Finnish player when the Avs drafted him tenth overall in the 2015 draft. Like Vesalainen, Rantanen had aimed to make the Avalanche roster but after six games where he averaged less 10 minutes a game, he was sent to the AHL where he ended up with 24 goals and 60 points in 52 games played during the 2015-16 season.
The following season he started off in San Antonio again but quickly found himself back with the Avalanche where he went on to score 20 goals and pick up 38 points in 75 games. The year after that, he was on one of hockey’s top lines with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog and was one shy of a 30 goal season.
Would his success still have happened had he went back to Europe in the 2015-16 season? Possibly, and it’s important to remember that whole situation is a one season affair for Vesalainen. Next fall, the Jets still have him under contract and there will not be an out-clause to have to factor in.
Rantanen’s journey remains Winnipeg’s best example to point at for a player who is seemingly ready to bolt back across the Atlantic, but a trip to the KHL for a year doesn’t spell the end of a promising bright NHL career for Vesalainen, it perhaps just delays it by a year.
But Do The Jets Even Know What To Do?
The “leave the rest to management” line from Maurice is an interesting one to say the least. It would suggest that Vesalainen’s call up back to the NHL was a call made by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and now Maurice is being simply left to “deal with it” as it were.
Could the Jets be simply trying to block a move back to Europe? Are they trying to keep Kristian in the press box for the time being to buy themselves time before a possible injury (or at this rate suspension) opens up a spot in the regular lineup? Sitting the 19 year old for any length of time would be considered horrible development management for a team that has prided itself on being able to draft and develop NHL level players. Surely playing in the KHL at the very least would be a better alternative than sitting in a press box night after night.
Right now, it would seem as though the Jets need to find a way to get Vesalainen into a regular NHL lineup spot with more than seven minutes of ice time per night, or allow him to head home and hope that a year in the KHL and that decision needs to come within the next week or so.