An American-born Finn was the first choice by the Montreal Canadiens on the second day of the 2018 NHL Draft. Jesse Ylönen, son to former NHLer Juha Ylönen, was more or less born into a career in ice hockey.
Having played the entirety of his draft season in Mestis, Finland’s second division, Ylönen gave defenders fits with some of his moves. However, he is still an uncut gem in need of some polishing.
He will need to add strength to his 6’1” frame to really challenge for an NHL position. If he does, he certainly has top-six potential, with his speed and hands standing out as the biggest tools to get him there.
Having played in Mestis, there were no real comparisons in the draft, but still Ylönen played against men and put up 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) over 43 games. An early birthday left him off the gold medal-winning Finnish Under-18 World Championship team this past spring, and that might have taken him out of mind for different scouting services that had him ranked anywhere between 28 and 84.
Trevor Timmins put forward the idea of looking for certain types of players before the draft, with hockey IQ and being able to play at high speed key factors. This profile fits Ylönen like a glove; he’s quick and can think on his feet.
He also fits Marc Bergevin’s criteria, in that he never gives up and has a good work ethic. The fact that he chose to play in Mestis and against men rather than to play with the Muskegon Lumberjacks, who selected him in the 13th round of the 2017 USHL draft, speaks about a choice made with a longer goal in mind. Rather than finding the spotlight in the USHL in order to get drafted, it was a calculated risk that panned out well.
No panellist had Ylönen higher than 10, and most of the votes were in the 10-20 range, with just three exceptions. One would assume it is the unknown league that is the cause for uncertainty among the voters.
The EOTP ballot placed him right where he eventually ended up, starting a run that will span several profiles.
Ylönen clearly made an impact on the voters as he is the second-highest draftee this season, and his entry at 13 is around the level of a few recent late first-round picks like Ryan Poehling (14 in 2017) and Noah Juulsen (17 in 2015).
Speed, speed, and more speed. Ylönen can use his skating to create separation from defenders. His strong edge-work gives him good acceleration and his active feet make him nimble enough to turn without warning while still maintaining possession.
He thrives with the puck on his stick and he rarely lets it go the wrong way. Thanks to some silky mitts, he can dangle while keeping up his speed.
While his offensive game is well-rounded, he is more of a shooter than a setup man, with a quick and deceptive release that can fool a goalkeeper at any given moment.
Ylönen’s hockey IQ is very high, quick with his decisions to find gaps in coverage for himself or his teammates. He looks most at home in the offensive zone, but Ylönen should mature and learn to use his awareness in the defensive zone when he plays in Liiga this year.
Despite a slim build, Ylönen isn’t afraid to go into battles near the opposing net or along the boards. His determination to score drives him to the front of the net, and he fights for the puck with that clear focus in mind.
Ylönen needs to add muscle to his frame to really take the next step in his game. Adding strength will mean that he is more effective in his work around the ice, both in front of and behind the puck. He would gain the ability to get to the crease with more regularity, as he does seem to be fatigued at certain times after a particularly hard battle on the previous shift.
The defensive side of the game is something that Ylönen will have to work on, and the step up to Liiga will ensure that he does just that. Players will be better, stronger, and more experienced, and it will further the Finnish forward’s development in that regard. With the hockey IQ that he possesses, it should be a development without too much of a problem.
Ylönen is a high-risk, high-reward player. He is exciting to watch and has been out of the spotlight in Mestis. As his defensive game isn’t up to par just yet, it would be safe to assume that he needs to take a longer approach to learning the game at the senior level in order to realize his NHL dream.
A full year among the professionals should give him plenty of insight on where he is and what he needs to improve on, and I predict a similar development to Artturi Lehkonen’s where he might stay in Europe for more than a single year.
Ylönen has top-six potential, but will need time to put it all together. If he can do that, it is worth noting that it is a common thing in Finland for teams to be loaned players at the end of the season from clubs outside of the playoffs (see Kristian Vesalainen, who left HPK for Kärpät last season). If Ylönen’s Pelicans don’t make the post-season and his development has been strong through the year, you would have to assume that a player with his skills could still be part of a deep playoff run come March.
The first step has been taken with a move to Finland’s top division, as Ylönen’s path toward becoming an NHL player has started out in a good direction.
Getting drafted by the Montreal Canadiens is a huge thing and puts a large deal of pressure on you as a player. It will be interesting to see how Ylönen handles that pressure.