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Jets prospect Kristian Vesalainen will grow his game in Europe

Forward won't attend NHL training camp after signing with pro team in Finland

by Scott Billeck / Correspondent

WINNIPEG -- Forward prospect Kristian Vesalainen left Winnipeg Jets development camp last week excited about the team that drafted him and equipped with a plan for his first offseason as a member of an NHL organization.

Selected by the Jets in the first round (No. 24) at the 2017 NHL Draft on June 23, the 18-year-old Finn wants to get bigger, faster and stronger over the summer.

"I want to gain weight and do a little more explosive gym things and work on (my) core," said Vesalainen, who hasn't skated since being named the most valuable player at the 2017 IIHF Under-18 World Championships in April, when he had 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in seven games for the silver medalist. "I have a personal trainer in Finland, so I'm going to work with him. And also I'm going to be on the ice."

The Jets envision Vesalainen (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) as a power forward. He said he models his game after Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.

"I think he has every tool to do everything," Vesalainen said of Malkin, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Penguins. "He has good skating. He can score. He can be physical also. I want to also be a guy that can do a lot."

Vesalainen's combination of size and skill is what led the Jets to draft him.

"He's a big, powerful player," general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "When you get a chance to get a guy who can skate, can go up and down the wings, and make plays like he can, you like that opportunity.

"I had an opportunity to see him play personally at the U-18 World Championship and he was one of the players that really jumped out at you there. Big body, will go to the net, and will do a lot of the things that will really accent the roster that we have right now."

Video: Jets draft F Kristian Vesalainen No. 24

That roster includes another young Finland-born player: 2016 first-round pick (No. 2) Patrik Laine, who scored 36 goals in his rookie season in Winnipeg and was runner-up to Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews in Calder Trophy voting as the top rookie in the NHL.

Vesalainen said he played with Laine once on a Finland national team. And although they're not well-acquainted with each other, they certainly share the same mindset when it comes to the pressures of being a first-round pick.

"I don't feel any pressure," Vesalainen said.

Jets fans likely will have to wait another year before seeing Vesalainen in the NHL.

Vesalainen's plan for this season doesn't include training camp with the Jets. He signed a one-year contract with HPK in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, after playing a total of 36 games with Frolunda HC in the Swedish Hockey League and Frolunda's top junior team.

After a week of watching and working with Vesalainen, Jets coach Paul Maurice was left with a good first impression.

"Very smooth hockey player (who) handles the puck well and can do it with his eyes up," Maurice said. "He has an advantage on a lot of young guys. He can make some plays and see some room. This guy is a skilled young player, very, very smooth."

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