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Highly coveted Kristian Vesalainen drafted with 24th pick

GM says Vesalainen would have been an option at 13 had they kept original pick

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

CHICAGO, IL - When General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff traded down from No. 13 to 24, he wasn't entirely sure what the draft board would look like when it was his turn at the podium during Friday's first round.

But as the picks rolled on and the crowd thinned out, it became increasingly clear the Jets were about to land one of the most highly coveted players in the draft.

In fact, it was a player they've had their eye on for some time, and especially over the past few weeks - one they would've been thrilled to select at 13, let alone 24 - after an impressive Combine interview cemented their opinion.

Kristian Vesalainen - the seventh-ranked European skater - was their guy.

Video: Jets draft F Kristian Vesalainen No. 24

"We'd been focusing so long on picking 13th… and then having a player that was in your grouping where you've been looking all along still there for you, it was a great opportunity for us," Cheveldayoff said.

Vesalainen spent most of the 2016-17 season with the Swedish Hockey League's Frolunda Indians where, as the youngest player on the roster, he helped the club secure a second straight Champion's Hockey League title. In 26 regular-season games, the 6-foot-4, 209-pound winger posted one goal and six points.

The 18-year-old also appeared in 10 regular-season games with the Frolunda J20 SuperElit League team, scoring four goals before adding three points (2G, 1A) in five playoff games.

"I'm a big power forward," he said surrounded by media shortly after being drafted. "I can score and get some points also. I'm good on my skates, a pretty fast guy, and I'm good with the puck."

Clearly.

Vesalainen represented Finland at the 2017 World Junior Championship (U-20) and the U-18 World Championship, where he was named the tournament MVP after leading all players in goals (6) and points (13), helping the Finns win silver.

The Helsinki native called the U-20 experience a "disappointment" after scoring only two points (1G, 1A) in the tournament, but said he responded well, returned home with something to prove and enjoyed a strong finish to the year.

With speed, size and the hands of a deadly triggerman, the winger is not only what the modern-day NHL craves, but he's the poster boy of the 'new' breed of elite Finnish hockey players who, for the second straight year, have made their presence felt in Round 1 of the NHL Draft.

Video: DRAFT | Vesalainen Scrum

"Finland has good players already and Finnish hockey in general is becoming a much faster game. It's going to [continue that way], I know.

"It's nice to have so many Finns in the NHL these days."

Including one Patrik Laine.

Vesalainen doesn't know him all that well, having played just one tournament together with the Finnish national team, but the draftee admits he kept one eye on the television this past year, watching the growth of one of the newest Nordic stars in the world's best league.

"He did pretty well last year. It was nice watching him play," Vesalainen said with a smile.

Asked what, if anything, he needs to improve on before debuting and eventually making an impact in the NHL, the youngster reverted back to what got him here in the first place.

"Using my size better," he deadpanned, while towering above almost everyone else in the room. "I'm a big guy, so I need to drive better, and be stronger in front of the net and in the corners."

If he does, look out.

This is a player with all the right tools and the dangerously determined, confident mindset to become an impact player in this league one day.  

Jets fans will get their first glimpse of the Finn on Monday when Jets Development Camp kicks off at Bell MTS Iceplex.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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