Kris Baker is once again counting down his list of top prospects available in the NHL Draft for Sabres.com. The first round of the 2017 NHL Draft will take place on June 23 in Chicago.
Position: Left Wing
Team: HPK (Liiga)
Beginning the year with Swedish Hockey League powerhouse Frolunda HC before being loaned to HPK in his native Finland, Kristian Vesalainen endured a challenging 2016-17 campaign that saw him show promise yet fall short of expectations.
He scored just one goal and six points while failing to stick on the upper lines with a stacked Frolunda squad, and after a brief stint with their junior affiliate, played nine games with HPK, scoring once on his 27 shots on goal while averaging 16:31 of work per game.
But then the IIHF World Under-18 Championship happened. All the hard work that Vesalainen put in against bigger, faster opponents allowed him to thrive when competing against his peer group. With the game seemingly slowing down for him, Vesalainen dominated by piling up six goals on 20.3 percent shooting and 13 total points in seven games to earn the tournament's Most Valuable Player award.
A powerful, rugged winger with a big shot and dominant 1-on-1 game, Vesalainen is a forward that leans on defensemen, wins board battles, and thrives in traffic.
He's tough to knock off the puck when he digs in on his way to the net, a skill that he demonstrates down both the right and left sides, which has allowed him to make a European professional impression at such a young age despite the lack of eyepopping offensive numbers. He's committed to the backcheck as well, making for a nice NHL projection given his size, tenacity and scoring skill.
Vesalainen is set to play out the final year of his SHL contract on loan to HPK, where the expectation is that he'll continue to work on his speed and consistency while maintaining the strong physical presence that has been a part of his game for so many years.
For more on all the youngsters in the Sabres pipeline, check out Kris Baker's website, SabresProspects.com. You can also follow him on Twitter (@SabresProspects).
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