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“Hopefully I get there”: Jesse Ylönen is putting in the work to earn an NHL spot in the future

Knowing what he needs to improve, Ylönen is already preparing for the next Liiga season.

Patrik Bexell / Eyes On The Prize

It is a relaxed Jesse Ylönen, even if he is coming directly from a training session, when we meet up in Lahti at noon. The forward has been working out every day for 10 days, with just a quick break after having been knocked out in the playoffs.

“I am working on my skills, but also traditional off-season training on the ice, in the gym, running, and all kinds of other activities. It’s fun to be on the ice, and of course you have to get better at every time.”

It is interesting that Ylönen mentions skating practice as he is one of the best skaters in his age group, but he has a simple answer: “I have been doing extra training with skating for many years, because when I was younger skating wasn’t my best skill. But now for many years I have been doing extra work both on and off the ice. Now my skating is getting better all the time. Still, I have lot to improve.”

Ylönen sustained a knee injury in the playoffs. “It’s still not 100%, but it’s getting better all the time. I have been able to go back on the ice, to do some gym sessions, and it’s getting better, and I think it will take a few more weeks, then it will be perfect.”

It was a long season for Ylönen: the draft combine in Buffalo, Montreal’s European combine in Stockholm, the draft, development camp, and an early season start with the Pelicans in Liiga. Yet Ylönen thinks it has been a good season, even with all the extra activities.

“It’s been pretty hard and tough, but of course, I am a hockey player, so I enjoy everything that has something to do with hockey. I think I have been getting enough rest. I think I am in good shape. I have been training well, so it’s not really a problem to play a lot, and train a lot.”

Coming from a hockey family, there is a lot of talk about the game, and it is a strength to draw from his father’s experience and get feedback on the way home from a game. It helps Ylönen’s own development even if it means there is never a break from hockey, not even at the dinner table. “He never forced me into hockey, and I started so young I can’t even remember a life without it.”

The graduation from Mestis to Liiga might have looked smooth on TV, but it wasn’t according to Ylönen. “Everything was different. It is more speed, stronger players, better players in all areas. It’s a bit more tactical game as well, so it really was a big difference. I am pretty happy with my season; I don’t think it was a bad season, but also it wasn’t perfect. It was my first season [at this level], so I don’t have anything to compare with, but I am happy with it.

“I think I started playing better in Liiga before the World Juniors, but it got easier to play as the season went on. The first 10-15 games wasn’t so good, but after around 20 games I thought I was playing better and better. My time on ice increased, power-play time increased — everything got easier.”

The Pelicans outperformed all expectations on the team this season, finishing third in the table, however the team hit a roadblock in the quarter-finals when they encountered a heavy-hitting HIFK. “It was a big disappointment,” says Ylönen, but also sees it as a learning experience, and a motivating factor. “It helps in the off-season. We know we need to improve a lot more to succeed next year.”

His team scored almost 200 goals over the season, the second-best offence in Liiga, and that benefited Ylönen as offence is his strength. “We had a good team with good players, and good coaches. It makes it a lot easier to play with that.”

Speaking about the power play, Ylönen was used as the bumper in a 1-3-1 system in Liiga, but along the half-wall during the World Juniors. The transition looked easy, perhaps because Ylönen prefers to play “where the coach puts me,” showing off some high-quality diplomacy for a young player.

It didn’t come as a shock at the draft that Montreal selected him, partly because he had a few interviews with them and partly for the invite to the European combine. “I thought they might like me because they were so interested, but you never really know what will happen. I had a feeling, they might like me, but I wasn’t sure — a good feeling.”

“Montreal is speaking to me a lot, I have been speaking with them about my development and what they are happy with and what they want me to work on. We have spoken a few times this year. They want me to put on a bit of muscle. That’s the big thing. To go to the gym and build up muscle.” It is evident that the Finnish youngster has put on a few kilos during the season, something that will please the Montreal brass, and will benefit Ylönen in Liiga, too.

There have been plenty of times when Ylönen has entered the offensive zone with speed, but instead of driving toward the net he has turned to the outside and looked for a pass or a shot from a worse position. Ylönen is keenly aware of the flaw in his game.

“I think it’s down to both muscle and confidence. Sometimes it’s about strength, sometimes it’s about confidence, and I am working hard to get better in those situations.” This is something that Ylönen needs to adjust ahead of an NHL career.

Adapting to the smaller rink won’t be a problem. Finland has some rinks that are smaller, and only a few practice games in North America were needed before he felt home on the ice before the World Juniors.

When asked about the large amount of Finns on the Montreal roster, Ylönen says he’s looking forward to joining them, but knows there are no guarantees. “Of course it’s great, but it’s a team sport and it doesn’t matter where you come from, but obviously if I get there one day it will be easier with a lot of Finns there. Hopefully I get there.”