3

Flames 2017 First Round Targets: Kristian Vesalainen

Let’s suppose that life throws a curveball at the Calgary Flames. Over their past few drafts, things went really well for them and they got what they wanted and needed in the first round. When you walk away from consecutive draft weekends with Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Dougie Hamilton (via trade) and Matthew Tkachuk, you can’t really argue that life’s not fair. In this year’s draft, as previously detailed, there’s a good chance that some other team snaps up Nick Suzuki before the Flames pick.

Who’s the best case scenario if that happens? Sans Suzuki, it seems a decent bet that the Flames look to Europe as there are a couple really interesting players that boast poise, pro experience and versatility on their resumes. Let’s take a look at the first of these young gents, Kristian Vesalainen.

Scouting report

The first thing to bear in mind with Vesalainen is this: he’s a Finnish player that spent time over the last two years in the Swedish Hockey League.

From NHL.com’s bio:

Vesalainen made the jump to the senior level in Sweden at just 16, becoming one of the youngest foreign players to step into that league. He won U18 gold in 2016 and silver in 2017.

“You can see he has everything to be a top-six forward,” one scout said, according to The Hockey News. “Once he gets drafted, he can relax.”

The scouting report on Vesalainen is he has a good combination of size (6-3, 207) and speed and projects to be a good top-end forward in the NHL, who can carry the puck up the boards and beat defenders to the net. Puck possession figures to be a good part of his professional game as he can shield the puck from defenders with his frame. The winger lacked consistency in his offensive game in 2016-17, but shined at the U18s. More production moving forward is expected of him.

Some scouts think a lack of production is just a sign that Vesalainen is still growing into his frame and learning to use his physical tools to their full extent.

From Future Considerations:

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.

In March, Jeff Marek noted some concern among scouts about Vesalainen’s lack of offensive production this season.

Our friends at Canucks Army have profiled Vesalainen, so dive in if you’d like a bit more detail.

The numbers

Vesalainen has played a lot of hockey in a lot of different places and situations over the past 12 months. Before we dive in bear in mind that he turned 18 on June 1, so he did all of these things as a 17-year-old.

He represented Finland in August’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He had zero points, as the Finns finished sixth (losing to Canada in the fifth-place game). He started the season with Frolunda HC of the Swedish Hockey League. In November he was loaned to HPK of SM-Liiga (in Finland) for about a month, and he returned to Frolunda following the World Juniors. He also spent a bit of time (10 games, plus playoffs) with Frolunda’s junior team. Following the SHL and SuperElit playoffs, he represented Finland for the third time that season at the Under-18 World Championship.

How was his production? He had six points in 26 games in the SHL and one point in nine SM-Liiga appearances. The numbers themselves don’t sound amazing, but only four other players (including draft eligibles Lias Andersson, Jesper Boqvist and Timothy Liljegren) had better points-per-game in terms of under-19 players in the SHL. He was one of just a dozen under-19 players who scored a goal in SM-Liiga. The sample sizes for both leagues aren’t great, reflective of the tendency for European pro teams not to stock up with younger players and also not to lean on them heavily, but relative to his peer group he performed very well against grown men.

Internationally, Vesalainen’s production was more or less reflective of his season. He wasn’t great on a disappointing Finnish entry at the Ivan Hlinka event. He was pretty good on a disappointing Finnish entry at the World Juniors, as the team narrowly avoided relegation. Back with his peer group in the spring’s Under-18 Worlds, he was superb. He led the tournament in scoring, was named tournament MVP and captured silver.

He had a roller coaster year, but he performed well against his peer group late in the season and performed well relative to his peer group in two tough pro leagues (albeit in somewhat truncated sample sizes).

Availability and fit

In terms of availability, most rankings we’ve surveyed have Vesalainen going in the late teens or early 20s. Bob McKenzie’s April Top 15 has him going 15th (narrowly), but subsequent rankings from other sources seem to reflect some consensus that he’ll be on the board when Brad Treliving goes to the podium.

In terms of fit, he seems to be the type of “high ceiling” player that Treliving’s been discussing of late. He’s got size: he’s 6’3″ and over 200 pounds. He can play both wings. He has international experience and he’s played in championships at the pro level. He’s played pro in two good leagues, both of which have transfer agreements with the NHL – so there’s no worry about troubles getting him over here eventually. He’s also dealt with adversity this season, as he’s bounced around a bit and bounced back from a pretty flat Hlinka tournament and a pretty lousy World Juniors for Finland. For an organization whose big players aren’t overly skilled and whose skilled players aren’t overly big, Vesalainen is a rare prospect who is both big and skilled.

Considering the Flames have a good history with Finnish pro players and drafting players from Swedish pro hockey, he seems like he’d be a great fit at 16th overall.