With two picks early in the second round in the 2018 NHL Draft, the Montreal Canadiens looked set to add some intriguing prospects. The first of the two picks was spent on a Finnish winger with tremendous speed: Jesse Ylönen.
Expectations on Ylönen were high, but realistic, when he entered the season with the Lahti Pelicans in Liiga. Having spent the season before in Mestis (Finland’s second division), Ylönen was used to playing against men, and so the transition to the top league was expected to be smooth.
In his second game of the season Ylönen scored twice, and expectations rose exponentially with each goal. However, it took nine more games the record his third goal (and third point). For a player whose strength was supposed to be his offence and who had played in a good league the season before, something was lacking.
During the month of December, Ylönen picked up a pace. When the World Junior Championship in British Columbia came around, it was clear that Ylönen had stepped up his game.
In the end, Ylönen finished tied for third in rookie scoring over the season, behind Florida Panthers prospect Aleksi Heponiemi (in his draft-plus-two year) and a certain Kaapo Kakko.
He was integral in Finland’s road to the WJC Final, and in the Gold Medal Game it was Ylönen who opened the scoring for the Finnish lion cubs with a blast on the power play.
The gold medal and success when playing against his peers brought new confidence into his game. Where he earlier moved away from goal after a zone entry, he started to drive more toward the net. His shots started to come from better positions, and he seemed to create more time for himself when entering the zone in control of the puck.
There were doubts in Ylönen’s defensive game, and while that has improved it can still be worked upon further. He does find his position more naturally now compared to this time last season, and that is against better opposition, which counts in his favour.
Another worry at the draft was Ylönen’s slight build and that it would be a problem in his transition from the neo-professional to the professional ranks. While he still has plenty of room to add muscle mass, he has been stronger than expected during the season, especially with the increased confidence he gained at the under-20 championship.
Ylönen’s underlying numbers were good for the season, but they don’t stand out when comparing them to his team. He had a better relative Corsi-for percentage, but was a bit sheltered, and had a bit more puck luck compared to the team in general.
The playoffs were a different matter entirely. HIFK took the Pelicans to the cleaners. While Ylönen was out injured for a few games and then relegated to the fourth line, it was obvious that he struggled. It seems clear that he needs to be surrounded by skilled players in order for a team to benefit from his play in the long run.
Ylönen’s defensive game has improved, something that was considered a necessity for his progress into the professional game. His defensive reads are much better along with his positioning in the defensive zone. It is clear that his hockey IQ has been a stregnth in this development and it bodes well for the future.
While expectations were high, he didn’t really live up to them. But he has the right tools to burst out next season. Looking back over the full year, his offensive output was a disappointment. Finishing third in scoring among rookies in Liiga is good, but he should have been a bit closer to the top two.
The reluctance to get to the dangerous areas might be down to his physical stature, and he will definitely benefit from an off-season when he will be able to build his strength up to be able to drive into the contested regions. It will require a balancing act so as not to sacrifice the speed and agility that are his top skills.
Ylönen has all of the tools in the box to become an impact player at the NHL level. Having adjusted during the season to a better league shows that the confidence placed in him was correct. Defence has improved, but the offensive game was found wanting this year.
He should move up the lineup next season, and it will be interesting to see if he gets the chance to run the power play along the half-wall rather than to be the bumper in the middle of a 1-3-1 system.
Many expected big things from Ylönen, and while his offence improved over the season, he still ranked below Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen in points-per-game average in his draft-plus-one year — this while playing in the second-best offence in Liiga.
He did perform well against his peers before and during the WJC, and the increased confidence throughout the season saw him begin to thrive. This raises the grade from a flat C to a B-.