There are few players that draw attention on every single shift they play. Jesse Ylönen is one of them. He wasn’t necessarily playing up to his potential on the offensive side every minute that he was on the ice this season, but his skating ability stood out so much from the pack that he remained very fun to observe on any given night, even when things weren’t clicking for him.
The way Ylönen moves on the ice, not many can imitate it. He could teach a lot of things to current NHLers. He wasn’t the fastest player in the 2018 draft (even if he can pack a lot of speed), the most explosive (even if he is almost always first in short races), or the most agile, but everything about his skating is high-end and is done with great technique.
He is always low on his skates, bending at the hips and with a pronounced knee angle, which gives him a lot of power in every push with an elongated, efficient stride. He has the ability to make great work of his edges for quick and hard turns.
He also combines those pushes with a great use of linear crossovers that make for quick thrusts and increased momentum through weight shifts, helping him fly when he is transporting the puck from zone to zone or getting in position off the rush for a scoring chance.
In the clip above, it’s the usage of crossovers combined with solid strides that allow the Finnish forward to skate past everyone else to tap the puck in for the goal. The defender, not feeling confident in his backward skating, turned to match the oncoming rush, but it was too late. He couldn’t catch up to the speed of the right-winger after having misjudged his ability to accelerate.
Ylönen’s skating is his main tool to create separation from opponents. He does that in more ways than straight-away speed. He is a master of cutbacks; a skill that is very useful in the NHL if used appropriately and with good timing.
A successful cutback, which consists on an abrupt change of direction, involves having enough room for the quick turn and also making the defender overshoot in his pursuit.
In this clip, Ylönen circles the zone in hope of finding a teammate to whom he could feed the puck for a scoring chance. And he knows he is at his most dangerous when behind the cage.
As he passes that spot, closely followed by a defender, he makes it seems like he is going to skate to the other faceoff circle. His opponent, expecting him to continue his movement, lines up his skates that way to stay with him.
Instead, Ylönen distances himself slightly from the boards, and now having the space necessary to turn back, immediately switches the angle of his blades to go 180 degrees the other way while staying very low to the ice to conserve his momentum. It’s a movement the defender couldn’t easily follow.
After freeing himself and circling behind the net once again, he then finds a teammate high in the zone for the goal.
There are plenty of examples of great cutbacks and agility in Ylönen’s games. He knows how to use his edges and weight shifts to make quick adjustments, go around opposing players or exploit seams in the opposing coverage that would be impossible for inferior skaters. Even from a complete stop, with just a slight fake in one direction, Ylönen can gain a step on a defender by exploding the opposite way.
These are some of the things we should see the forward do more and more as he discovers just how much he can get away with on the ice.
His precise control of his movements and his elusiveness could allow him to attack the middle of the ice successfully with possession more than what he is doing right now, or protect the puck longer in the offensive zone. Adding strength would also go a long way into enabling him to do just that and make his play in tight along the boards that much better.
If he could be more solid against back pressure, he would have the quick first few steps necessary to escape close quarters with possession and create even more for his team. It’s very possible we see Ylönen’s playmaking abilities take off next season for the Lahden Pelicans in Liiga with some work on those elements and more confidence.
The right-winger is at his best when he is willing to challenge the opposition, attacking defenders with the combination of his quick feet and hands, while also remaining deceptive on his intentions, effectively opening space for teammates and passing lanes to them.
He displayed many of those qualities in Mestis last season, but they were on another level at U19 tournaments, where he was very often the most dominant player on the ice against his peers.
He especially shone when paired with Joni Ikonen, the other right-handed Finnish forward in the Habs’ development pool. The cross-ice passes on the power play were flying between these two as they were fueling each other’s shots and exploiting the opposition’s defences with their handling ability.
Ylönen was putting on a clinic with his skating there, showing some impressive and sometimes even creative moves to set up plays.
Take a look at this last clip where Ylönen is, once again, behind the net.
After taking a good look at his passing options, he receives a rimmed puck from his defenceman on his forehand, attracting two opposing defenders who saw the fact that he turned his back to them as a signal to engage.
Instead of doing what everyone thinks and coming out on the other side of the cage with possession, Ylönen, in one swift movement, stops and banks the puck off the board to get it behind him in a position to make a pass to the slot, something he manages to do in extremis against the pressure of the incoming defenders.
With this play, he subverted the expectations of the other defender in front of the net and reached an open teammate for a shot in a very dangerous area. But it is a few seconds later that Ylönen showed the most interesting skating moves.
The puck was stopped from the initial shot, but found its way back to his stick. He received in motion and got out from behind the cage while facing the slot with a number of one-leg pushes to the side, combined with a forward-and-back movement of his other foot. This way, effectively sliding or skipping sideways on the ice, enabled him to find another friendly stick for a one-timer that rang off the post.
This skating motion is usually utilized by defencemen to reposition themselves against an incoming rush, but the Finnish forward in that sequence makes a creative use of it in a completely different context.
Jesse Ylönen is not without flaws and will need time to work on his game to make it more transferable to the North American ice and style of play. But, right now, he is no doubt one of the most skilled forward in Montreal’s expanding prospect pool.
If he had played in a league with more exposure and participated in the U18 tournaments (he was not eligible due to his early birthday) it’s a safe bet that he would have been taken in the first round. His ability as a playmaker, fueled by his skating, would have very likely sold him to a lot of head scouts.
But that wasn’t how things transpired, and the Montreal Canadiens stand to be the ones to benefit.