It's impossible to watch Kristian Vesalainen right now and not get excited about where he'll be once the world juniors roll around almost five months from now. Already 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds, Vesalainen has a gold medal under his belt from Finland's world under-18s victory in North Dakota this past season and has already played against men in the SHL.
Yes, one of Finland's best prospects is playing in Sweden.
Though the countries are rivals, Vesalainen hopped the border to further his hockey career, joining the Frolunda Indians this past season. And he hasn't looked back.
“I didn’t find a good team in Finland," Vesalainen said. "I like how the game is played in Sweden, so I went out in the summer and loved it. It’s much faster – they just go, go and chase the puck. And the guys are better with the puck.”
At the junior level, Vesalainen was nearly a point per game player. In the SHL (where Montreal Canadiens prospect and fellow Finn played), the youngster posted two points in 19 games. Not much, but not bad for a 16-year-old. And based on the potential he showed at last week's world junior summer meet-up in Michigan, Vesalainen has just begun to show what he is capable of.
“He’s a really good talent," said Frolunda defenseman Jacob Larsson, an Anaheim Ducks first-rounder. "He’s training so hard. He’s big, strong and really good with his stick. He shoots really well and he’s going to be so good.”
The fact Frolunda has been a haven for young players lately helps matters. Along with Larsson, Vesalainen has hung out with Detroit pick Christoffer Ehn and Dallas selection John Nyberg. All three have filled him in on what to expect in his NHL draft year, while making sure he gets the ribbing a Finn living in Sweden can expect.
“It’s not bad, really," Vesalainen said. "Sometimes they make jokes, but it’s not so bad.”
The fact Vesalainen speaks Swedish does not make him immune.
“He’s pretty good at it," Larsson said. "He’s a funny guy and sometimes we make fun of him because he pronounces some words pretty weird…but it’s fun.”
And as Vesalainen grows, Frolunda will have even more fun watching him develop. Though he played left wing last season, the left-shooting youngster expects to move to the right wing in 2016-17, where he believes he can more effectively cut in from the blueline for scoring opportunities.
Vesalainen has studied Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin and prides himself on playing hard at both ends of the ice. Indeed, in Michigan, if Vesalainen turned the puck over, he would track it down until he got it back and out of danger. His size helps, but his skating is also coming along nicely, too. Finnish world junior coach Jukka Rautakorpi knows the staff in Frolunda and is pleased with how Vesalainen has been progressing under their tutelage.
"They work well with him," Rautakorpi said. "He has improved in the summertime. He’s quicker. And Frolunda plays like a lot of North American teams.”
Which is great to hear if you're an NHL team. Because Vesalainen seems to be on the fast-track to the top. He's looking like a top-10 pick for 2017 already and perhaps even a top-five pick when all is said and done.
Though he is developing in Sweden, he's proud to wear the Finnish national jersey whenever he gets the chance and still prefers Hesburger over Max Burger. There is one more reason Vesalainen doesn't mind playing in Sweden, however:
“The girls are a little bit prettier there,” he said.