Kristian Vesalainen’s season has been a roller coaster ride. He started out as a projected top ten pick, then nearly fell out of the first round following some middling numbers in Europe, before shooting back up the rankings after a dominant performance in the U18 tournament. This Finn plays a power forward type game, and possesses the size, strength and skating to reap the benefits of it, though he also has a powerful enough shot to score from distance. Where he goes in the NHL Entry Draft is anyone’s guess – all we know is that we’ve got him pegged at the 17th best prospect on our list.
- Age: 18 – June 1st, 1999
- Birthplace: Helsinki, FIN
- Frame: 6’3″ / 209 lbs
- Position: Left Wing/Right Wing
- Handedness: Left
- Draft Year Team: Frolunda HC
- Accomplishments/Awards: U18 WJC Silver Medal, U18 WJC MVP, U18 WJC All-Star (16/17); U18 WJC Gold Medal, SHL Champion, J18 SM Gold Medal (15/16); EYOF Bronze Medal (14/15); Jr. C Sarja Bronze Medal (12/13)
Adjusted Scoring (SEAL)
Vesalainen’s point rate got a predictably large boost, given that he played professional hockey. Age adjustments in pro leagues are significantly smaller and he did receive a little boost for some decent even strength production. His SEAL adjusted scoring rate sits in about the 90th percentile for eligible forwards in this draft (now denoted on the horizontal bar graph at the top of the chart).
Cohort Based (pGPS)
Because Vesalainen played more than a handful of games in a couple of leagues, I’ve included the results of both the SHL and Liiga cohorts here. His one point in nine games in the Finnish Liiga didn’t net him a particularly high likelihood of success (though his single match with 200+ NHL GP was the very successful Mikko Koivu), but his SHL cohort certainly did, despite a points per game of 0.23 that some have portrayed as lackluster or disappointing. Magnus Paajarvi and Henrik Sedin are included in Vesalainen’s Swedish cohort – although Henrik was in his draft-minus-one season at the time, they’re really only a few months apart in age relative to the start of the relevant seasons.
A big and strong winger who has the ability to impact the game in many ways…plays a versatile, high-tempo offensive game…battles for pucks and space…a beast along the wall and difficult to move in front of the net…mixes a heavy game with very soft, skilled hands…possesses a very hard shot with quick release…makes soft, easy-to-control passes to his teammates…dangerous anytime he has the puck in the offensive zone…a powerful, long stride allows him to build impressive speed and makes him tough to stop…has the agility and balance as well as the strength and reach to really control possession in traffic and down low…defensively, he brings imposing pressure on the forecheck…not always playing at full intensity or with consistent effort…when he wants to, he can absolutely dominate physically…just a toolsy player with very high potential.
From the Hockey Prospect Black Book (Excerpt from publication):
Kristian is a big forward with good offensive tools including a powerful shot. His release is heavy and he can get it off fairly quickly. When he’s on his game he also has good positioning in the offensive zone allowing him to exploit scoring opportunities. he has also shown flashes of good playmaking ability and capable of finding his linemates for scoring chances. He’s a good skater and does well when going wide on defenders and cutting in. He lacks intensity in battles, resulting in him losing more battles than you’d expect for someone of his size.
From Corey Pronman of ESPN (Excerpt only – full article behind pay wall):
Players his size who can jet as well as Kristian does are hard to find. He’s a player whose speed makes him incredibly dangerous, given his long wingspan, and he has great puck skills. He won’t be a premier playmaker but is able to generate quite a bit of offense from his creativity, speed and ability to drive the high-percentage areas. His game needs to round out a lot, though. He isn’t that great defensively, and though he can play a power game, he needs to work on being more consistent in loose puck battles.
From Jimmy Hamrin of McKeen’s Hockey (Excerpt only – full article behind pay wall):
This has been a tough season for Vesalainen. The early to mature physical stature helped him in to get to senior hockey as a 16-year-old last season but he has not been able to prevail very often this season which leaves a question mark for the upcoming draft. The Finnish winger has good offensive potential if he figures out how he can use his hard shot and his teammates more effectively. He is a power forward and should be regarded as such. I believe that he has tools to make it in to the NHL in various roles. For now, I would say that he is more of a strong bottom six forward in potential but I can also see him helping out in a top role giving room for elite skilled players. For the draft I would say that he is a typical borderline first rounder or early second rounder.
It was a tale of two seasons for this Finnish power forward, who closed out his draft year with strong performances in both Sweden’s J20 league and the U18 worlds. Not only did Vesalainen earn the tournament’s top player honors, but his ability to make plays at high speed and cause serious damage off the cycle revealed just how dominant a player he can be. Consistency in effort and playing enaged are areas he needs to work on, but this is a home run pick for a team coming off a 50-win season.
Kristian Vesalainen’s 2016-17 season was quite an adventure. Prior to the start of the campaign, he looked to be a top ten prospect. We previewed him in the #8 spot in a preliminary ranking last September, and he sat at #7 during the season’s first Consolidated Ranking in December. After that, things kind of went off the rails. As the months rolled by, Vesalainen began slipping into the teens and even into the 20’s. So what happened?
Vesalainen began his season in the SHL with Frolunda. After putting up a goal and five points in 16 games averaging 11 minutes of ice time, Vesalainen was loaned to Liiga, where he played in nine games, tallying only a single goal. After that he headed to the Finnish U20 camp in preparation for the World Junior Tournament, at which he produced just two points in six games as Finland was thoroughly embarrassed and nearly relegated just one year after winning Gold at the same tournament. He then returned to Sweden and played a further 10 games with only a single assist to show for it, this time averaging just 6:30 of ice time. He was sent to the U20 squad in the SuperElit league where he scored four goals in 10 games. He had three points in five playoff games in the junior league, and played one final pointless playoff game with the Frolunda men’s team.
Laid out like that, it’s easy to see why he fell out of favour with scouts and prognosticators. When a player is plying his trade halfway around the world, there is an increased reliance on point totals – when those fail to materialize, prospects lose a significant portion of their sheen.
However, what happened next has driven Vesalainen into the spotlight and back up the rankings: he absolutely tore up the World Under-18 tournament in Slovakia. Vesalainen was the best player for the Silver Medal winning Finns, and may well have been the best player at the tournament – an assessment that some clearly agreed with, given that he was named the tournament MVP.
So, all is right is Vesalainen’s world now. But I have to wonder, how much did he really deserve to fall in the first place?
During his first stint in the SHL, Vesalainen wasn’t blowing anyone away, but he was having some success. Five points in 15 games is nothing to scoff at for a 17-year old playing pro, especially in 3rd line minutes.
But Vesalainen didn’t seem satisfied there – perhaps he wanted more ice time and Frolunda’s addition of Sean Bergenheim all but precluded that from happening, but it also might have had to do with a little bit of homesickness. “Yeah, it was pretty tough mentally actually,” he told reporters at the NHL Combine in Buffalo last weekend. “I had some tough times in Sweden. My family lived in Finland so I was alone there, so it was pretty tough”.
Whatever the reasoning, Vesalainen was loaned to JYP in Finland, where he played nine games and didn’t have much to show for it – at least on the surface.
What really caught my attention though was some of the underlying stats surrounding his time in the Finnish Liiga. Many operated under the assumption that Vesalainen’s stint in Liiga this season was largely a disappointment – myself included. Yet digging deeper into the fancy stats that Liiga posts on their website paints a picture of bad luck more than anything. Vesalainen’s Corsi-For percentage in Liiga was a whopping 60.8 percent. Granted, that’s only in nine games, but he managed to accumulate a shot differential of +43 in that short time (+121/-78), averaging 16:31 of ice time, while also averaging an even 3.0 shots per game, which is also impressive. Vesalainen finally scored on his 27th and final shot on goal.
The explanation for only notching a single goal probably lies somewhere between his 3.7% personal shooting percentage, his 2.5% on-ice shooting percentage and the fact that he got just 59 second of power play time. It’s likely that Vesalainen deserved much better results during his time in Finland, but alas after that ninth game his time there was up, as he headed to the World Junior camp.
There’s not much to excuse his second stint in the SHL, other than that his ice time was cut back even more, nor can his lackluster performances at the Ivan Hlinka and WJC be explained away. What were left with is a player who had some ups and some downs in his draft year. He clearly still has a boatload of talent, and luckily for him it was on display during his most recent on-ice appearance – recency bias can do wonders for prospects.
The aforementioned ups and downs should keep him out of the top ten come draft day, but I’d still expect Vesalainen to be plucked somewhere in the mid-teens.
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