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Jets prospects hit the ice prior to departing for Belleville

Vesalainen will serve as assistant captain during weekend event

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

WINNIPEG - Today, the Winnipeg Jets prospects are wheels up for Belleville - the unofficial start of the 2019-20 campaign.

It's the first time the Jets will compete in this tournament (which also features the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators) after participating in the Young Stars Classic in Penticton, BC for the last several years.

No matter the location though, Manitoba Moose head coach Pascal Vincent - who will be behind the bench with the prospects in Belleville - says his message doesn't change.

"We are going to wear the Winnipeg Jets jersey. We're going there to compete," Vincent said. "For the players, they're going to showcase themselves. We told them what we're going to evaluate: shift length, intensity, compete, driving the net. 

"We're looking to find the right players for the next generation of Jets."

Video: ROOKIE CAMP | Pascal Vincent

Aside from reaching a certain level of "compete," Vincent will also be looking for a little more from veterans such as 2017 first round pick Kristian Vesalainen and 2014 fifth round selection, C.J. Suess.

Suess will wear the captain's 'C' this weekend, while Vesalainen will be an assistant captain.

Coming off an injury plagued season in 2018-19, Vincent feels the game play will be important for Suess.

For Vesalainen, it's all about building off what Vincent saw in him last season with the Moose.

"I want him to go there and try to be a difference maker," said Vincent. "He's got experience now. I want to see a guy that will win those one-on-one battles, that will bring the puck to the net. He knows the system, so that shouldn't be an issue. I think we need to see that kind of player on the ice where he's leading the pack, he's got confidence, and he's driving the net."

The 20-year-old Vesalainen played a total of 64 games in 2018-19, five of those came in the NHL, 22 in the AHL, and 37 in the KHL with Jokerit. 

But even with all that experience at the pro level, Vesalainen isn't looking past this weekend, which sees the Jets prospects take on Ottawa on Sept. 6 and Sept. 9 (both games at 6 pm CT). In addition, the Jets face off with Montreal on Sept. 8, also at 6 pm CT.

"I just want to get a good feeling playing with the guys. Get some touches on the ice and show what I can do," said Vesalainen. "It's great to be back now. I'm excited to start a new season."

Video: ROOKIE CAMP | Kristian Vesalainen

His 22 games with the Manitoba Moose were split, with 14 of them coming after Mar. 17. The first eight came after he was reassigned by the Winnipeg Jets in October of 2018.

"I really enjoyed working with him last year, even before he left," said Vincent. "When he came back his attitude was outstanding. It was really good. He wanted to come back, he wanted to learn. This year, I've spoken to him a few times and he's excited to be here. I want him to take charge."

Vesalainen is familiar with two other Finns that will be heading to Belleville this weekend. He played in the 2017 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship with Joona Luoto and has also had a number of conversations with 2019 first round pick Ville Heinola.

For Heinola, this will be his first time putting on a Jets jersey in game action.

"I didn't know what to expect for this camp or this week, but it's exciting," said Heinola, who arrived from Finland on Wednesday. "There are many good players in here."

Video: ROOKIE CAMP | Ville Heinola

The left-shot defenceman will also be going through the transition that a number of players from overseas go through when they come to North America, the smaller ice surface.

He experienced it a bit during development camp in June, but feels his game is suited to a smaller sheet.

"Everything happens faster," he said. "I can play the fast game and read the game."

While players like Vesalainen and Heinola have signed entry-level contracts and have their sights set on pro hockey, some players heading to the Rookie Showcase in Jets colours are here on an invitation.

"If they're here, there's a chance. At the end of the day, you want to be given a chance. What you do with it, it's in your hands," Vincent said.

"We're not going to put a round pick number on your shoulders or forehead. If you can win your battles, if you can win your shifts consistently, then you're going to make a name for yourself."


McKenzie isn't the only prospect on the initial roster that won't make the trip to Belleville.

Goaltender Mikhail Berdin also won't participate due to injury, but Vincent said the 21-year-old's ailment isn't serious and expects both Berdin and McKenzie to be ready for training camp.

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