Few players are drafted out of the Mestis league, the second-tier professional league in Finland. Finnish prospects either play in the U20 league or, if they are more advanced in their development, directly in Liiga. But during the 2017-18 seasons, one player dragged a pack of NHL scouts to the arena of the Espoo United: young skating prodigy, Jesse Ylönen.
Ylönen scored at a decent rate as an 18-year-old in Mestis. Due to the lack of NHL talent coming out of the league, you couldn’t really put his production in perspective, but his 0.5 points per game remained intriguing as young, lanky forwards don’t usually score in professional hockey.
Ylönen didn’t just shine in Finland. His international performances as an under-age player for the country’s U20 team raised confidence in his ability to carve out an NHL career.
The Canadiens ultimately selected him at 35th overall, three picks before Alexander Romanov. Since then, Ylönen has graduated to Liiga, where he continues to play for the Lahden Pelicans as he awaits his start with the Laval Rocket. The forward should play an important role with the team if/when the AHL finally comes back from its hiatus.
At 14th on the list, Ylönen separates the top prospects from the fringe ones. It’s a spot that fits the forward quite well. A lot of questions still surround him and we have yet to see him score in the AHL. On the other hand, his tools make it easy to project him to the NHL, something that couldn’t necessarily be said of the players behind him.
For those same reasons, the votes were quite spread out for the prospect. We had votes from 24 to 6; the largest range for a top-20 player.
Top 25 Under 25 History
For the past few years, Ylönen has lodged himself comfortably in the middle of the board . The lack of change in the prospect’s ranking is easily explicable: it mirrors his stagnated production. Since his draft year, he has scored at about the same 0.5 points-per-game rate overseas, which means that, on paper at least, he never separated himself from his internal competition in the Habs organization.
History of #13
So, you may ask: if the numbers haven’t been encouraging, why should we trust that Ylönen is destined for an NHL career?
His potential rests in his exceptional mobility. In the skating department, he edges out the overwhelming majority of prospects drafted in 2018, and even most NHLers. He doesn’t just have an NHL skill, but a truly elite one.
Coaches of all levels could easily use clips of the winger rushing up ice to teach posture and mechanics to their players. Ylönen bends his limbs optimally — his knees lock at 90 degrees and advance past the toes, indicating a high-level of ankle flexion — and he rotates his hips back to unlock their power. At the end of a push, a straight line can almost be traced from the top of his head to the end of his skate blade.
Jesse Ylönen wears #72 with the Ladhen Pelicans.
His efficient skating and his ability to load his legs powerfully let him switch from a forward stride to a crossover to a cutback without making extra, wasteful movements. He conserves his speed out of turns, rapidly enlarges the gap between him and opponents in open ice, and dangles them effectively. He is extra stable when executing manoeuvres, conserving the same posture and height to the ice. As a result, the puck rarely bounces away from his stick when he’s carrying it.
A quick downshift, fake, and re-acceleration is often all the winger needs to leave opponents behind. This ability to beat defenders made him one of the motors of the Pelicans’ transition game and one of their main carrying threats in the offensive zone. In his years with the team, he only got better at using his gifts — his exceptional skating and puck-control — to break into the offensive zone and keep the opposition at a distance when roaming in their territory.
Ylönen is both a playmaker and a shooter. He can hold on to the puck, deceive the defence, and reach teammates through sticks and skates to spring them for scoring chances, and his one-timer from the top of the circle flies past goalies when teammates set him up just right. His powerful skating posture enables him to drop his weight fully on his stick and rocket the puck at the net as it arrives to his back foot.
Away from the puck, Ylönen has evolved into an effective defensive forward. Once again, his speed and explosiveness give him an advantage. They allow him to recover a defensive position, pressure the opposition to create turnovers, and jump on loose pucks. But the winger has also honed the mental aspects of defending. He is a lot more conscious of risk and preemptively retreats to cover for them. His many shoulder-checks allow him to locate opponents trying to sneak away from him.
The devil is in the details.
Ylönen doesn’t score as much as he should because, in year three of his Finnish professional career, he still hasn’t maximized his skill set. He doesn’t manufacture breakdowns as much as he could and scores only when the conditions are stacked in his favour.
After eluding a defender in the offensive zone, he doesn’t look to attack the slot to attract a second opponent and free a teammate, but continues to circle the offensive zone until he runs out of space and has to dump the puck on net from 40 feet away. His moves generally lack planning. He can manipulate the opposition, but if he wants to transform his dangles into actual setups, he needs to think more about why he is executing a certain play and what should come next.
The winger also plays overly safe, standing higher in the zone to cover for teammates when there is open space in the slot for him to prepare his one-timers. As he skates faster than just about everyone in Liiga, he could stand to play more aggressively. Even if he missed his assignment, it wouldn’t matter. He can easily catch up through the neutral zone and disrupt the opposition.
When he rushes the puck up ice, he only inconsistently threatens the middle of the ice. He doesn’t attack defenders at an angle and tends to skate away from his support, which means he can be angled to the outside relatively easily.
Finally, the winger needs to incorporate more deception in his game. Sometimes it can feel like he is forcing certain passes, but it is not that the choice of play is bad, he simply warned the defence of that choice too early by locking his eyes on his target and positioning his blade and body in the direction it would travel.
The great news is that Ylönen is making evident progress in all those facets of play. He has evolved from his time in Mestis. He is stronger, protects the puck better, manipulates defenders in clever ways, finds open space more often, covers for teammates’ mistakes regularly, and, on special occasions, breaks down opposing teams by himself.
Progress is what you want out of a prospect. It doesn’t matter if it is slow as long as it doesn’t halt. If Ylönen continues to find new ways to use his many exceptional tools, he could end up as a top-six forward for the Canadiens in a couple of years. He could find chemistry with a centreman capable of attracting defensive attention to create runways and shots for him. The winger might not be able to create a first advantage against the opposition, but he could multiply that advantage with his speed and agile hands.
If the Finnish winger never develops the scoring touch necessary to complement the Habs’ best players, a bottom-six spot and a penalty-killing role could still fit him. One wrong move and the opposing team would see him rapidly escape with the puck to take on their goalie.
Of course, the AHL will be a crucial step for Ylönen. It will be a test he might not pass immediately, but some aspects of AHL play will serve him well. His teammates will be better able to match his speed up ice, and they will more often find him in open space in the offensive zone for shots if he pops open. However, the competition will also angle him to the walls more and punish him in those tight spaces, too.
It will demand a lot of adaptation from Ylönen. It is in those kind of moments that prospects reveal if they will sink or swim. I would bet on the latter happening.