Janne Laukkanen, Sport Manager with the Lahden (Lahti) Pelicans, is a harsh critique when it comes to Montreal Canadiens draft pick Jesse Ylönen. But Laukkanen knows what it takes to reach the NHL; he has over 400 games in the league to his name.
”He wasn’t as good as we expected, but when he got the touch and confidence, he had a chance to show up. I think he took that spot [in the lineup] because you have to remember that it’s 25 players and you have to find that spot or fight for one spot. I think he did very good things mentally, but we got some extra steps in for his physique too, so I think that was a good result.
“Everyone knows he is a very good player and has a great talent. I think the team helped, he helped himself, and so far he is looking good. He is on the right track right now.”
Laukkanen was one of the main reasons why Ylönen chose the Finnish club. The GM is a close friend with Jesse’s father, Juha. They played together during their careers, and Laukkanen has seen Jesse from an early age to the player he is now.
”He has a lot to do, a lot of work with his skating still, but we are going in the right direction with that, too. Overall, if you think about it, where he is coming from ... he was born in the US, and I think that it’s always something with those stories. It’s a hockey family. He grew up in that lifestyle every day, growing up in the locker room with the fun guys. I like his personality; he is a perfect hockey player.
“We have changed the hockey program in Finland. Everyone should have fun at the rink, but you still have to work hard. It’s not easy to do that, but we try to get that atmosphere to help everyone reach their potential, but you have to remember there are other important things in life too, such as school. Every year we speak to the new guys in the team, ‘You have to get those things done’ and hockey is second, even if they think hockey is first. We have to make them understand that hockey isn’t everything in their life.”
There is a lot of talk about the Finnish youth program, and it benefits a player such as Ylönen as well, even as a pro. But with other interested parties, such as the Montreal Canadiens, are there to many factors at work for one player? Laukkanen thinks that it all comes down to the fact that the Pelicans, the National Association, and the Canadiens all have the same goal: they want Ylönen to succeed.
”We try to catch up to Sweden, and now you [Swedes] might have to catch up to us a bit, but in the long run it helps both nations progress in hockey. It’s a competition, but it’s a good competition.”
Looking at it from the Pelicans’ point of view, things aren’t much different at the league level from the Finnish-Swedish rivalry. The Pelicans see what others do, adjust it a bit, and incorporate it into the team.
“We try to do everything a little better every year here. We can’t build a wall in one go. We have to find the right players that we can help. They need to understand our system and why they are here. Only then can we give them the possibility to be the best they can and hope they can be a much better player and reach the next level: to go to Sweden or to the NHL.
“That’s our secret. We are a small bird. There are bigger birds out there. We do the work for two, three years with these guys and then the rich clubs come and steal the players. It’s the same everywhere. Maybe someday we will be the rich club, but again, it’s small steps all the way. We try to find a little bit extra for everyone and help them. In the long run it will help us.”
The Liiga playoffs are ongoing, and HPK has challenged the big teams, showing that a small team can knock out the traditional bigger ones. Laukkanen thinks this is good for Finnish hockey and for the league. The importance of underdogs winning can never be underestimated.
“It is a young team with talented players that works hard. It’s really good to see.”
There will be a new challenge for the team from Lahti and the Canadiens’ Finnish prospect next season as they have qualified for the Champions Hockey League. The international experience will be great for Ylönen. It will be a struggle for the team, but the pros will hopefully outweigh the cons.
A good Swedish team in their group would benefit the Pelicans, partly due to an exchange of ideas and partly to see where you stand next to the best in Europe (outside the KHL). It will benefit Ylönen, too. Playing against better players will give him an idea of what he needs to improve.
The step from Liiga and the NHL has gotten smaller in recent years, with players such as Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Patrik Laine making the jump to the NHL in the same year they were drafted.
“It was a big surprise that Kotkaniemi [made his debut]. We would think that even if you are close to go to the NHL, the better thing is to play another year in Finland; get the heavy minutes and see to it that you get those little things right. You prepare yourself to get better for the next step. It’s a great story, and he is playing great in Montreal, too. He had to do a lot of work the whole summer to take that spot, because it’s never easy to get there.”
Laukkanen deflects with a laugh when he is reminded that he made that step once, too. “It was a long time ago. It is not the same today.”
The problem this past year for Ylönen — and something that the casual observer from North America doesn’t always consider — is how much a draft year takes a toll on a prospect. With combines, drafts, development camps, etc., a lot of different training and a lot of travel means that the Pelicans had to observe their talent in a different way.
“We count the days in the draft year, in regards to training and traveling, and we have a backup plan for this. We make sure that a player takes one week off from the team practices. They need to do something different after all that was happening in the summer, so we tell them to go swimming and stuff like that. The physiques coach helps out and keeps track of all those things.”
This obviously leads to a slower start to a season for a prospect, and might help to understand the slow start in the autumn that Ylönen experienced last year.
The prospect has his work cut out for him. The pressure is there, and there is no doubt of his potential.
“One more year for us, and the next year I think he will be ready for the NHL. There are little things that he needs to work on. His physique, his skating, and his hockey IQ are pretty good,” Laukkanen said. “We hope that he will have a good year here and then we will be proud when he will be done and ready for the NHL.”
The Pelicans are looking to take another step forward next season. It will mean that Ylönen will move forward, and Laukkanen offers a rare insight into Ylönen’s role in the team in 2019-20.
“I think Jesse will be on the second line, and if he can take those little steps I think he will be on the first line, too. In Finland, it doesn’t matter much if you are on the first or second line, that much, it’s more about the combination you play with; if you get the right combination for the line, or even the five guys as defencemen jumps into the offence as well. It’s not a big thing, first line or second line.
“I think he will do a great job, we hope he will be healthy, but this summer is really important for him to get the physique to the level he needs it.”