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Report Card: Jesse Ylönen took big strides toward becoming an NHL player

There’s still work to be done in the AHL, but the Finnish winger brings a strong base of talent to North America.

NHL: JUN 28 Canadiens Development Camp Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Lahti Pelicans finished a surprising third in the 2018-19 Liiga season, and earned a qualification to the Champions Hockey League. There was some worry about those extra games added to the season, and indeed the international tournament took a toll on the team as the structure fell apart. After a strong start to 2019-20, in the end the team finished second from the bottom, well outside a playoff spot.

It wasn’t the season that Jesse Ylönen wanted as he prepared himself for the next step in his career, but he says that he still matured both as a player and as a person due to the experience.

On the ice, he adapted and got better in his defensive zone, but where he improved the most was in his controlled zone exits and zone entries. Even if the Pelicans didn’t play well overall, Ylönen was more often involved in the offence than he was the previous season. He finished the season with 22 points (12G, 10A) over 53 games. Of the 112 goals that Pelicans scored, he was directly involved in 19.6% of them. This is a huge jump from his previous season where he was directly involved in 14.0%.

Even if the stat line shows a regression, the underlying numbers show that he performed better. He had relative Corsi-for percentage of +3.1, despite having tougher assignments than an average teammates.

Elite Prospects

Even during a tough season, he showed his skill on some occasions. The best was probably a fake drop-pass he executed to fool the entire defence into looking the wrong way and giving him a chance to score.

With the season over, he had the opportunity to join a playoff team in Finland on loan to try to win a championship. As he was focused on his long-term goal of playing in the NHL, he informed us that that wasn’t an option for him as he was set to go to Laval Rocket and play in the AHL rather than play in the Liiga post-season.

Pluses

Ylönen’s speed is incredible. He’s one of the top skaters in the Montreal Canadiens organisation. It is regularly used to fly past opponents, who sometimes have to double-team him to keep him under control. It has been used to great effect on the hybrid ice in Finland, and he will continue to be a menace on the North American ice.

His puck control is not quite at the same level, but it is still one of his strengths. He will never really dangle a defender outright, but he can control the puck at speed as well as in the small areas around the net.

One has to add his character as a strength as well. A great deal of adversity and a frustrating season were merely accepted as chances to learn a more complete role that will benefit his career. His will to improve and reach his goals even applies to his biggest strength. He continually works on improving his skating technique, and he told me last year that he was a bad skater when he started playing hockey, working at it his whole life to get it to where it is today.

Minuses

There are two things that really stand out when it comes to minuses for the Finnish speedster; his physique and his shot.

He hasn’t really added a lot of muscle on his upper body. In some ways this is a good thing as added weight would begin to hinder his balance and fantastic skating. However in order to become an NHL regular he needs to add some weight, not only to stand up to bigger and better defenders, but round out his offensive game. He has tended to break toward the perimeter when playing in Liiga. With an even smaller rink and better defenders, he needs to be stronger to move toward the net in order to generate more offence.

He has a good shot, but it is not elite, and this needs to be improved as well. I am unsure why his shot isn’t better. In Junior it really did look sharp, and it might just be that getting used to more experienced opponents requires more time to adjust and regain some confidence.

Discussion

Ylönen graduates from the European side of the Atlantic with a few things left to work on. He is not the finished product that Artturi Lehkonen was when he came over in 2016. He will need seasoning in the AHL, and it would be a big surprise to see him grab a regular roster spot with the Canadiens right out of camp. The most important thing for him this summer is to prepare himself and add some muscle, while finding the right balance between strength and speed.

Grade: B

It might be surprising to some that he gets such a good grade, considering his production this season. You can’t fault a player for the fact that his team was bad, and it is clear that he has improved everywhere except in the number of goals and assists he scored in Liiga. The fact is that the Pelicans scored 40% fewer goals than last season, and Ylönen increased his share of goals by almost 50% compared to previous year; an astonishing feat for a young player. This by itself shows that he really has developed further than a simple look at goals and assists.

His overall play improving was a big reason for the relative increase. He was used in all situations and had a positive impact on the team in all three zones. When he was on the ice, as seen in the underlying stats, it wa clear that he had raised his game and deserves credit for doing so.

Ylönen heads to North America in a strong position. It will take time, but his mental strength and drive make him more or less certain to reach the NHL in the future. It is now time for Joël Bouchard to shape him into the complete NHL player that the Finnish winger has shown glimpses of becoming in his native league.

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