For the Charlottetown Islanders, only a few things were known for sure heading into the 2017-2018 season: Matthew Welsh would be the starting goaltender for the team. Pascal Aquin, Keith Getson, and Matthew Grouchy would comprise one of the top forward lines. And Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Saku Vesterinen would carry the load on defense.
For Vesterinen, this year would be a proving ground of sorts. Passed over in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, he’d look to turn heads and open eyes to earn a shot in The Show. He was coming off of an injury-shortened, albeit productive year in which he scored 19 points in 57 games. As the de facto #2 D behind Joseph, he’d have ample opportunity to showcase his abilities with the Islanders.
Those abilities were on full display as the season opened up, especially his playmaking abilities. Vesterinen logged nine assists, along with two goals, in his first 12 games of the season, including a four-assist effort against the Quebec Remparts in October. His game continued to heat up in November, notching another nine assists in ten games. He rocketed up the Islanders’ scoring lists, even leading the team in points for a period of time.
With Vesterinen’s strong start to the season, heads certainly began turning in his direction. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic ranked him 50th among the top-62 prospects available in the 2018 draft, placing him in the same vicinity as Baie-Comeau’s Gabriel Fortier and Xavier Bouchard. Scouts were looking to see who this Finnish defender was that was a fundamental cog in the Islanders system.
One of Vesterinen’s strongest assets was his ability to distribute the puck on the powerplay. Much of his production early in the season was generated while on the man advantage, including each of his four assists in the aforementioned game against Quebec. His ability to move the puck on the powerplay was creating fits for opposing shorthanded units and helping the Islanders win valuable games.
In December, Vesterinen went down with an injury just prior to the Christmas break, and was held out until the beginning of 2018. When he did return, it took some time for him to rediscover the offensive flair he displayed in 2017. He recorded just four points in eleven January games, while following that up with six more points in February.
That dip in production didn’t necessarily reflect his impact on the ice, however. Between January and February, Vesterinen posted a +3 rating, meaning that although he may not have been producing as much as in the first half of the season, he was still having a positive impact and doing his part to keep the puck out of the Islanders net.
Vesterinen rediscovered his offensive game during the 2018 QMJHL Playoffs. Head coach Jim Hulton shuffled him around the lineup, inserting him alongside Taylor Egan, a fellow offensive-minded defenseman, and the move worked wonders. By not playing alongside P-O Joseph, Vesterinen ended up not facing opposing team’s top lines as much. By the end of the playoffs, Vesterinen finished third among defenders with nine points in 18 playoff games.
Saku Vesterinen’s strong play garnered the eyes of scouts across the NHL. Central Scouting ranked him 143rd among all draft-eligible North American skaters. While he inevitably didn’t get drafted, his efforts weren’t for nothing. Over the 2018 offseason Vesterinen signed a 2-year contract with his hometown team KalPa of Liiga, Finland’s top hockey league.
While Vesterinen’s affable smile and strong offensive play will be missed in Charlottetown, we’re proud to send yet another player to the pro ranks. We wish Saku the best of luck as he takes the next step in his hockey career!