After an October to forget, the Manitoba Moose turned their year around in November.
The Moose managed just a single victory in the opening month of the season, then won eight of their first nine outings in November. Not surprisingly, the improved results dovetail with much-improved play and production from some guys the Winnipeg Jets are counting on to one day make a difference at the highest level.
A couple of rookies are seeing some time with the big club right now, as 19-year-old Swedish centre David Gustafsson and 22-year-old Finnish left winger Joona Luoto are playing on the fourth line. Gustafsson is a second-round pick from 2018, while Luoto was inked as a free agent last summer. Michael Spacek — a fourth-rounder from 2015 — is the Jets’ extra forward right now.
As for who might be next, nobody in the AHL is beating the door down at the moment. Hulking defenceman Dylan Samberg, a second-round pick in 2017, might be making the biggest strides right now, but as a U.S. college player, we won’t be seeing the NCAA junior in the NHL until next spring at the earliest. Ville Heinola, who played eight games on the blue-line to start the year with Winnipeg after being selected 20th overall at the 2019 NHL Draft, is back in Finland where he can work on adding muscle and play for his country at the World Junior Championship. Count on him being a regular starter next year.
Who might join the team before then? Here’s a peek at a few candidates.
Sami Niku, D
GP: 16 | G: 3 | A: 9 | PTS: 12
Niku played 30 games with Winnipeg last season and had the inside track on a blue-line spot heading into camp this year. September was a bit of a scary month for Niku, though, after he and fellow prospect Kristian Vesalainen were driving down Portage Avenue and broadsided a car that was making a left turn when it should not have been. Nobody was seriously injured, but the airbags deployed and the two Finns were shook up and forced to sit out a couple days of practice while their bodies healed.
Niku battled a groin injury to start the year, so suffice it to say it was a tough start to the campaign. The 23-year-old still figures into the long-term future in Winnipeg, but the issue for Winnipeg is Niku represents another slight frame for a blue-line that could really use some heft after the departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Mylers, Ben Chiarot and the absence of Dustin Byfuglien.
Kristian Vesalainen, LW
GP: 23 | G: 4 | A: 6 | PTS: 10
Vesalainen’s difficult camp was coloured by the car crash and he got off to an awful start in the AHL. After failing to register a point in eight of his first nine outings, though, Vesalainen has come alive, netting eight points in his past 12 contests.
At six-foot-four and more than 220 pounds, the 2017 first-rounder remains a very intriguing prospect.
Jansen Harkins, C
GP: 23 | G: 6 | A: 21 | PTS: 27
Harkins, 22, began hitting his stride in the second half of last season and, as a third-year pro, he’s beginning to show real promise. The North Vancouver boy is leading the Moose in scoring thanks to his playmaking abilities, best exemplified by a five-assist night on Nov. 2 versus the Grand Rapids Griffins. Harkins’ 18 assists represent the second-best total in the league next to the 19 put up by Lucas Elvenes of the Chicago Wolves.
Mikhail Berdin, G
GP: 20 | RECORD: 11-9-0 | GAA: 2.55 | SV%:.921
Losing Eric Comrie on waivers earlier this year was a blow to the organizational goalie depth. Berdin, however, is starting to look like a find. A six-round pick in 2016, the Russian goalie now has a .924 save percentage through 42 career AHL contests dating back to his rookie season last year. One thing you can count on with the 21-year-old; Berdin loves playing the puck. He scored a goal while playing Jr. A in the United States Hockey League and often looks determined to add to those career numbers.
Less fun but more crucially, with Jets backup Laurent Brossoit playing on an expiring contract, Berdin has shown he’s worthy of consideration for work at the highest level.
Logan Stanley, D
GP: 9 | G:1 | A: 2 | PTS: 3
Forced to the sidelines with an injury for a month, Stanley is just now getting back in the swing of things. The six-foot-seven defenceman was drafted 18th overall in 2016 and, as a second-year pro, the organization is very impressed with the skating gains he’s made in those gigantic legs and feet.