At first glance it’s extremely difficult to understand why Kristian Vesalainen fell outside the projected top 10 of this year’s NHL Draft class. He’s a large forward, standing at 6’4’’, and plays the game at a high skill level. However, some struggles at the World Juniors on a Finnish team in disarray, and a lacklustre showing for Frölunda in the SHL hurt his stock heading in.
His talent is still there, however, and his descent down the draft board could be to Montreal’s advantage. After all, their last Finnish winger who played for Frölunda worked out pretty well.
Place of Birth: Helsinki, Finland
Position: Right Wing
Weight: 205 lbs.
First and foremost Vesalainen is a highly talented player, but despite his size he is not a prototypical power forward. He is a powerful skater who can use his speed to burn past defenders, or his hands to deke around them and set up scoring chances. He can slow the game down to pick out passing lanes for teammates, and do so with relative ease.
He has a nose for finding soft spots in defensive coverage, as well as winning battles along the boards, where he utilizes his large frame and an active stick to protect the puck. He’s a buzzsaw to play against, relentless in pursuit of the puck in the offensive zone.
With his speed and size coupled together he becomes an absolute nightmare for opposing defences. Vesalainen allows little time for them to react, before he’s on top of them in the offensive zone. Add in his heavy shot and you have a player who could become an absolute force in the NHL if he’s allowed to develop properly.
It’s not just his offensive game that’s drawn praise from scouts this past year, though (despite the lack of finish). Vesalainen is more than capable of holding his own on the defensive side of the puck. He jams lanes well with his positioning, and with his monstrous wingspan he can use his stick to easily swat pucks out of dangerous areas. His great skating ability allows him to backcheck easily and force turnovers from the opposition.
The issues however, are not with his skill set, which is arguably one of the most appealing in his draft class. The big knock against Vesalainen right now is that his efforts are inconsistent, and he is sometimes a non-factor in games.
Like many high-skill players there are times when he looks complacent or disinterested on the ice, leading to a narrative that he might be considered “lazy.” This is something that is easily remedied as a player matures, and begins to take on larger responsibilities for a team.
Vesalainen is a big, offensive forward who makes an impact when he uses his size and speed to his advantage. He has solid skating ability, with good speed and balance on his edges helping him transition and pivot, and open himself up for a pass. He has impressive puck skills for a bigger player, showing the ability to accept a pass at full speed, and make a sharp cut towards the slot at high speed. While his defensive game still needs work and his consistency needs to be ironed out, his speed, size and offensive skill should make him an alluring prospect.
In his own words (at the 2017 Draft Combine)
On improving his game next season: “Yeah I want to use my size a little bit better, going harder into the corners and to the net.”
On the tough first year and bouncing between leagues in Europe: “It was pretty tough mentally. I had some tough times in Sweden, and my family lived in Finland, so I was alone there. It was pretty tough.”
ISS Hockey: 19th
Future Considerations: 17th
NHL Central Scouting: 7th (European Skaters)
It’s possible that Vesalainen is among the most skilled players in this year’s draft. His combination of size and skill makes him worth pursuing should he still be on the board when the Montreal Canadiens step up to the podium in Chicago.
Concerns over his inconsistency can be put into perspective when you factor in the fact he was a 17-year-old playing in arguably the top European league, on a team that can be hard to earn a roster spot on. As he grows and matures, he’s going to add more consistency to his game at the professional level. When he’s competed against players his own age he’s been a dominant force on the ice.
He’s a supremely talented forward that would be a major boost to a lacking Montreal prospect pool right now. The major demand is for a centre, but to ignore a player of Vesalainen’s quality could be a mistake the part of the Canadiens.
While it’s possible that he could be selected before the Habs pick, given he was interviewed by every team except the New York Islanders, he could be a target worth trading up for as well, depending on how the picks shake out early on.