With the Winnipeg Jets working tirelessly to improve their roster for next season, one of their top young prospects who could potentially make an impact in the NHL this winter has decided to begin his 2020-21 campaign overseas, as the club announced forward Kristian Vesalainen is being loaned to HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish Elite League (Liiga).
The #NHLJets have loaned forward Kristian Vesalainen to HPK of the Finnish Elite League. Under the parameters of the agreement with HPK, Vesalainen will return when the 2020-21 season begins in North America.
— Winnipeg Jets PR (@WpgJetsPR) October 21, 2020
As part of the agreement, Vesalainen must return to North America whenever hockey resumes this winter, which isn’t expected to happen until at least December. But once the Jets’ training camp opens, the former first-round selection could receive an opportunity to prove he deserves a chance to compete for a bottom-six role at the highest level of competition.
Selected during the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the 6-foot-4 winger was assigned to his home country to continue his development during the 2017-18 campaign and he enjoyed plenty of success during his first full season with HPK. Since his team failed to qualify for the postseason, the 21-year old was ultimately loaned to Oulun Karpat during their playoff run, where he helped them capture the league championship.
Over his 44 regular season games with HPK, Vesalainen produced 19 goals, 39 points, 0.43 goals per game, and 0.89 points per game. Through his playoff stretch with Karpat, the left-hander played 18 games, scoring four goals along with eight points.
Following his successful campaign overseas, the Finnish native officially made his debut in North America during the 2018-19 season and also played in a handful of games with the Jets, which is something very few experts expected to happen that early in his career. That being said, the encouraging young forward was far more productive during his time with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL.
After making a strong impression during training camp, Vesalainen started the regular season in Winnipeg, playing five games and recording one assist, one shot on net, one hit, one block, and he averaged 6:50 minutes of ice time. Then with Manitoba, the hard-shooting forward played 22 games, generating four goals, 13 points, and 31 shots on net.
Returning to his role with the Moose, the versatile winger spent the entire 2019-20 campaign down in the AHL and was able to showcase his full offensive potential. Though his second season playing in North America was far from perfect, as he struggled to utilize his physicality at times and it ended prematurely due to the pandemic, the top prospect was still able to enjoy one of the best showings of his entire career.
Over his 60 games from this past season, Vesalainen produced 12 goals, 30 points, 0.2 goals per game, 0.5 points per game, 121 shots on net, along with his game-winning goal that came against the Chicago Wolves on Dec. 6.
While Vesalainen is far from a finished product, returning to HPK for the next few months should definitely help him prepare for the NHL’s 2020-21 campaign, especially since he’s very familiar with their coaching staff. But when he returns to North America in the winter, the youngster will need to hit the ground running once camp begins or he’ll likely be forced to spend another season in the AHL.