Kristian Vesalainen was a highly touted draft pick even the year before his draft, after having made his debut in the professional ranks with Frölunda in SHL, especially after having become the youngest ever foreign player to score in the SHL (and fourth youngest ever among all skaters). He also happened to win the Le Mat trophy and WU18C gold the same night, increasing the spotlight on the big winger.
But then came the 2016-17 season, where he struggled to keep his spot on the Frölunda senior team. When Vesalainen went on a loan to HPK in Finland and still struggled, he returned to Frölunda to make an impact in the U20 playoff run and finished the season with another stand out performance in the World U18 Championship. Finland took home bronze and Vesalainen grabbed the scoring title with 13 points (6+7), one point a head of another high draft pick Miro Heiskanen, who went to Dallas Stars at number three in the 2017 draft.The full season of up and downs made Vesalainen fall in the draft to where Winnipeg Jets pounced on him at number 24 in what might be considered a steal.
Arctic Ice Hockey was fortunate to get a conversation with Kristian Vesalainen thanks to the support of his Finnish club HPK. While HPK is currently in the relegation zone and struggling a bit, Kristian Vesalainen has been on fire: at the time of publication he has 36 points (17+19) in 39 games.
While his time in Frölunda last year did not go as planned, Vesalainen is keen to stress how much it meant for him, and how much he learned while being part of arguably one of the best youth organisations hockey-wise in Europe.
”While it was tough time last year in Frölunda, I think I had a great time in Frölunda the whole two years I played there,” said Vesalainen. “It was good for me to go there and have a great experience. Now I have my family here (in Hämeenlinna) or much closer, and they can come around more often, its a lot easier for me”.
It is easy to think of Sweden and Finland as very similar, but the fact is that the cultures are quite different and it can be upsetting for a 16 year old to live alone. Being away from the safety of your family is clear here. It is, however, something that means that he will have learned important things off the ice as well from his time in Sweden, and it can benefit him when he leaves for Canada and the NHL.
It is easy to hear how much the Finnish team and his own success in the WU18C has meant for Kristian
“After the previous season (2016-2017) I came back with a lot of confidence and it has carried over to this season,” said Vesalainen.
While the start of the season was good it has been a spectacular return after the WJC 2018. Even now, a few weeks after having returned from the World Juniors, Vesalainen has mixed feelings. On a personal level it was a good tournament but Vesalainen expressed regret over the Finland team’s quarter-final exit.
“I felt we had a great team and we could have played a lot better than we did”.
Even if it is a lingering bittersweet feeling Vesalainen is quick to point out some positives and one in particular should hearten Winnipeg Jets fans.
“It’s not a big deal [to change to a smaller rink]. Of course a lot of us plays in Liiga rinks and its in some ways a lot more tough to play there”.
Even with the confidence boost from the World Juniors with him, he points to an exceptional power play after his return to Liiga for a lot of his success.
“We have won quite a few games too, and it is a lot easier to play when the team is also playing good”.
His team, HPK, is currently pushing for a spot in the playoffs.
“I hope we make the playoffs,” said Vesalainen. “We have had a little bit of a tough time so we have to win every game right now, but every game is pretty important. One game at a time”, he says with a laugh keenly aware of the old cliché.
A lot of Winnipeg Jets fans are starting to dream about a power play with Patrik Laine on one side and Kristian Vesalainen on the other.
“I haven’t thought about it so much, but it would be great to play with him on the power play,” Vesalainen says with a laugh. “I’ll play this year and then we’ll have to see what I will do. We will see. Patrik Laine hasn’t been in contact with me since I was drafted. I think he has other things to do,” Vesalainen continues, not bothered a bit about it.
The Jets are talking a bit with Vesalainen though, asking him to improve, to become a bit more physical, be a bit more careful with the puck and what decisions he makes with the puck.
“Of course I have to work on my d-zone work too,” said Vesalainen. “It is the little stuff, but the little stuff are the most difficult things to get right”.
Kristian Vesalainen hopes he makes the playoffs by being one of the top six teams in the league, the teams that rank from 7-10 in the standings have a play-in for the playoffs, and the teams below them are done for the year. We at Arctic Ice Hockey wish him nothing but success.
Thanks to Patrik for this interview.