The Winnipeg Jets came into draft week holding the 13th-overall pick and having exposed Tobias Enstrom and Marko Dano to the Vegas Golden Knights. With an eye towards making the playoffs, it was a real win for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to be able to swing a trade with the expansion franchise to keep them away from either of those players and steer George McPhee to Chris Thorburn — one of the few remaining Thrashers who no longer fit in the Jets lineup.
The trade not only ensured Winnipeg moved forward with its complete roster intact, but it also managed to stay in the first round, swapping picks with Vegas to move to 24th overall.
The Jets didn’t have to sacrifice much of anything where other teams did this week, and at the same time added yet another youngster to hopefully help stabilize the future of this team. With a cupboard full of exciting prospects already, from the near-NHL ones such as Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic to more long-term projects such as Michael Spacek or Logan Stanley, the selection of Kristian Vesalainen in Round 1 presents a potentially dreamy combo with Patrik Laine somewhere long down the road.
Ideally, the Jets would have liked to get a defenceman in the first round, but six of the 11 picks made before their turn were blueliners and it wasn’t in Winnipeg’s interest to pick for position. With the blooming NHL team they have and the bright future coming up behind it, the Jets were just interested in getting the best player available.
Vesalainen, a 6-foot-3, 209-pound winger, presents an intriguing addition. It’s the second consecutive year Winnipeg has selected a Finnish sniper with its first pick, and while Vesalainen is certainly no Laine, he’s at least dominated players in his own age group.
“If you go back to the start of the season, this is a guy who’s probably in the top 10,” Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino said on the broadcast after Cheveldayoff’s announcement. Vesalainen was the No. 4-ranked European skater at the mid-term, but finished No. 7 because of how he struggled to produce as a pro.
His first taste of pro hockey came in 2015-16 when he was just 16 years old and played 19 games with Frolunda in the Swedish Hockey League, scoring two points. This season, he scored a goal and six points with them in 26 games and then scored one point in nine games with HPK in Finland’s top league. So while getting pro experience at such an early age is a plus, the lack of production worried some scouts.
But if you look at how he’s done against players his own age, Vesalainen has stood out. He led April’s under-18 world championship with 13 points in seven games and earned MVP honours. To give you an idea, Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews, and Connor McDavid are three recent MVPs of that event. And in 47 under-20 SuperElit league games in Sweden the past two years, he had 19 goals and 38 points.
To be sure, Vesalainen is a project, but one the prospect-rich Jets will happily take on. The team has made five first-round picks in the past three years and as Connor (17th overall in ’15) pushes to join a forward group that already includes 24-and-unders Mark Scheifele (7th overall in ’11), Nikolaj Ehlers (9th overall in ’14) and Laine (2nd overall in ’15), there’s only so much room for NHL-ready prospects.
The Jets can be cautious and slow bringing Vesalainen along while hoping that his immense size, smooth puckhandling and offensive upside eventually translate to pro success.
If it works out, this will be a steal of a draft for Cheveldayoff and quite a complement for countryman Laine. If not, it was a risk well worth it for the Jets capping off a week where they kept every piece of the NHL team together when they could have lost a valuable asset.
All told, Cheveldayoff comes out of draft week a quiet winner.