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2017 NHL Draft target: Meet Kristian Vesalainen, MVP of the U-18 tournament

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Auston Matthews won MVP of the 2015 U-18 Tournament. Could the Leafs add the 2017 winner to join him?

NHL: NHL Draft Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Today we will look at Finnish winger Kristian Vesalainen, who ranked 15th on Bob McKenzie’s latest draft rankings. Simply put: if you are looking for the best combination of size and speed for the Leafs at #17, this is likely your target. Vesalainen won the MVP of the U18 tournament this year, which puts him in great company:

Vesalainen bounced between three leagues this year: the SuperElit league (Swedish junior league), SHL (Swedish pro league), and Liiga (Finnish pro league). He hardly saw the ice at times, but he made up for this on the international stage by dominating against his own age group.

A Brief Scouting Report

Vesalainen is quick, especially for a 6’3 forward. He buzzes around the offensive zone and seemingly holds onto the puck for ages. His vision is quite good, and he has a knack for drawing opposing defenders towards him before dishing the puck off to an open teammate.

He is “slippery” down low in the offensive zone, and his elusive nature makes him a pain to defend against along the boards. His speed makes him a dangerous threat on the rush, and he is a strong playmaker for a winger of his size.

Vesalainen plays a much different style to Lias Andersson, who I profiled here. I give Vesalainen the advantage in terms of speed, playmaking on the rush, and puck carrying, but Andersson looks to be the better finisher and player in the slot. My main criticism of Vesalainen is that he can be a bit of a “perimeter player”, as he could stand to get better around the net.

He’s an asset on the forecheck given his long reach, and he regularly surprises defenders with his quickness. Although his skill set is certainly offensively-focused, he owns the size and speed to improve in his own end. Ultimately, his dominant performance at the U-18 should make him a possible selection for the Leafs at #17. I think he’s likely a couple years away from being NHL ready, but Vesalainen should project well as he gets stronger.

A Glimpse of Vesalainen In Action

Forecheck + Shot Assist:

His combination of speed, puck carrying, and playmaking was on display this whole tournament, and Team Canada could not contain him. Vesalainen does not get an assist on this play, but he did create a quality scoring chance out of nothing.

Escaping Pressure:

Vesalainen is noticeably talented along the boards, as he makes the most out of his quickness and long reach. He’s big enough to hold off opposing defenders, and he’s elusive enough to hold onto the puck until he can find an open teammate.

Escaping Pressure Part 2 (Eeli Tolvanen’s Goal):

Eeli Tolvanen is one of the best goal scorers in this draft class because of this shot, but it is worth pointing out that Vesalainen makes this play happen. Three different Russian defenders tried to strip him of the puck, but he still managed to set up a scoring chance in the slot.

Assist:

Vesalainen gets the second assist here, after pulling a flashy move on the rush. His puck skills and elusiveness are certainly above average for a 6’3 forward.

Drop Pass:

Once again, Vesalainen draws a defender towards him before making a drop pass to an open teammate. He does not get an assist on this play, but he certainly deserved one.

Takeaway:

He certainly won’t be a league leader in hits, but do not be surprised if he racks up the takeaways at the NHL level. He’s sneaky quick.

Speed + Puck Protection:

His speed and ability to use his size to protect the puck makes him a pain to defend on the rush. His lateral quickness is on full display here.

Shootout:

Elusiveness + Assist:

Vesalainen may be a bit of a perimeter player, but he is quite good at what he does. His ability to hold onto the puck and find a passing lane is clearly his calling card.

Assist + Ability To Protect The Puck:

Four different defenders try to strip Vesalainen off the puck here, and he shrugs his way out of the corner with ease. There’s no one left to cover his teammate in front of the net.

The Big Picture

The Leafs would likely prefer to take a defenceman, but there is a good chance that Vesalainen is one of the best players available at #17. If Toronto’s favourite defenceman is off the board, do not be surprised if they look to add a talented left winger with size to complement their abundance of depth on the right side.

Vesalainen is a bit of a project, and he reminds me a bit of Kasperi Kapanen in this regard. Kapanen did not excel in the Finnish pro league in his draft year, and he was also labelled as a perimeter player with work to do defensively. Lias Andersson is likely the safer pick since he does more of the little things well, but Vesalainen’s combination of size, puck carrying, playmaking, and speed is certainly intriguing. Although he represents a bit of a long-term project, it is tough to argue with his potential upside following his fantastic international performance.