Although they are Stanley Cup contenders and widely regarded as the best hope to be the first Canadian team to win it all since 1993, the Winnipeg Jets are still one of the younger teams in the NHL.
Only two players (Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler) are over the age of 30. Patrik Laine, Jack Roslovic, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Josh Morrissey are all key members of this team already, figure to be for many years to come, and each of them is under the age of 24.
You might think a team in this situation, especially one that has had a top-15 pick just once in the past four years, would be fresh out of high-end prospects. But even considering this, and the fact they dealt a first-round pick and prospect Eric Foley for Paul Stastny at last year’s trade deadline, the Jets still have a fairly strong pipeline of talented youngsters.
In our first prospect report of the season for Winnipeg, we focus in on their top five prospects.
Kristian Vesalainen, 19, LW, Manitoba Moose
Drafted: First round, 24th overall, 2017
Season to date: 2GP | 0G | 4A | 4P | +2
Vesalainen started the season with the NHL club, but was sent to AHL Manitoba after five games, each of which he played less than nine minutes in. The demotion had nothing to do with his play — it was all about getting a good amount of ice time for the youngster. Perhaps he’ll be called back up in time to make the Jets’ trip to his native Finland next week, but at the very least he’s likely the first call-up if and when injuries hit the forward unit.
As an 18-year-old last season, Vesalainen was second on his Finnish Liiga team in scoring and was the most productive under-22-year-old player in the league with 22 goals and 43 points in 49 games. He’s got good size already (six-foot-three, 207 pounds), but he’s facing the same challenges lots of players do when they arrive from Europe and transition straight to the NHL.
“The speed of the game is so different, there’s not a lot of time or space,” said Jimmy Roy, Winnipeg’s director of player development. “Nine times out of 10 there’s a guy on you right away.”
But his skills are undeniable. Vesalainen has a pro shot and with his size, has the puck protection capabilities to be a potentially dangerous NHLer in the long run. In just two AHL games he already has four points after putting up one assist in five games with the Jets.
Sami Niku, 22, D, Manitoba Moose
Drafted: Seventh round, 198th overall, 2015
Season to date: 6GP | 0G | 3A | 3P | -3
The AHL’s reigning defenceman of the year — as a rookie no less — the six-foot-one, 176-pound Niku brings a skill-set that’s valued in today’s NHL game.
“He’s very skilled, sees the ice and handles the puck well,” Roy said. “He makes a great first pass and gets out of his own end quickly.”
A seventh-round pick in what’s turning out to be a very strong 2015 draft for the Jets, Niku has been a fast riser. He went from 11 points in 38 games with Finland’s JYP in 2015-16, to 27 in 59 games with them the following season. Then his AHL breakout happened and he even earned a one-game start in the NHL, in which he scored a goal.
“He understands how an NHL or AHL player trains and prepares, and the commitment it takes, the day-to-day,” Roy said.
Logan Stanley, 20, D, Manitoba Moose
Drafted: First round, 18th overall, 2016
Season to date: 3GP | 0G | 0A | 0P | Even
The Jets had two first-round picks in 2016 and after taking a sure thing in Patrik Laine second overall, they went with a bit more of a project player with Stanley at No. 18. A few players taken after Stanley are now in the NHL — Sam Steel, Dennis Cholowski, Brett Howden — but the Jets are still confident their patience will pay off with the defenceman.
At six-foot-seven and 231 pounds, Stanley is three games into his first pro season with the Manitoba Moose. He’s coming off a 42-point season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, but offence isn’t necessarily what will get him to the NHL. This player needs to be a confident defender, and though the knock on him has been around his skating ability, Roy noted that the Jets always liked Stanley’s first stride and that he has grown well as a skater.
The bigger challenge this year for Stanley comes in adapting to the better competition. After getting comfortable dominating the junior ranks physically against mostly teenagers, he won’t be able to do that so easily in the pro ranks.
“Learning stick positioning and gap control will be key for him this year,” Roy said. “We always knew that (he was a long-term prospect) when we drafted him. Tons of potential there.”
Dylan Samberg, 19, D, U. of Minnesota-Duluth
Drafted: Second round, 43rd overall, 2017
Season to date: 5GP | 1G | 1A | 2P | Even
Speaking of big defencemen (though not quite as big as Stanley), Samberg is trending well in the NCAA, but don’t expect him to blow you away with highlight-reel offensive plays or impressive statistics.
“He’s a stay-at-home defender,” Roy said.
Samberg did, however, post four points in seven games for the United States at last year’s WJC and figures to be back as a key part of that lineup in Vancouver/Victoria this December. His Minnesota-Duluth squad is the defending NCAA champions and currently ranked third in the nation, so Samberg will be logging a ton of minutes in a second national championship bid later this season.
The Jets are certainly high on Samberg. He may need some time in the AHL before he’s ready for a full-time promotion to the NHL once his college career is over, but it’s worth noting that he’s a left-shot defenceman, an area in which the Jets could use an upgrade. Behind Josh Morrissey, Ben Chiarot and Dmitry Kulikov occupy the left side spots on Pairs 2 and 3 right now, while Tyler Myers has often been tasked with playing his off-side in the past — and he may have to leave via free agency this summer.
Mason Appleton, 22, RW, Manitoba Moose
Drafted: Sixth round, 168th overall, 2015
Season to date: 6GP | 4G | 4A | 8P | +1
Another emerging talent from that 2015 draft, this sixth-rounder was the AHL’s rookie of the year in 2017-18. He’s more of a setup man than goal scorer and registered 44 assists last season, but his strength is in his all-around ability.
Roy calls him a “hard-working kid” and stressed how good his character is as well.
The only trouble right now on his NHL path is the depth of forwards the Jets possess. His past AHL linemate, Jack Roslovic, finally made the team for good this season, and first-rounder Vesalainen was having a hard time getting good ice time.
At some point, though, an injury might happen that provides an opportunity, and Appleton could try and break his way in then.
“He’s not too far off,” Roy said. “He just needs to get his foot in the door on the third or fourth line and show the coaches what he can do.”