The 20-year-old right-winger faces steep learning curve in AHL after skipping final games with Liiga club to join Laval.
There were two television cameras and a slew of media members waiting for Jesse Ylönen on his first day as an American Hockey League player — before he had practised for the first time with the Laval Rocket. And even before he underwent his physical.
If he had any doubts, the 20-year-old right-winger quickly realized he’s no longer in Finland. Ylönen might not be a saviour but, like Rocket teammates Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling before him, he becomes part of the core of young players expected to eventually reverse the Canadiens’ fortunes.
“I’ll just try to do my best and try to help the team as much as possible,” said the 6-foot, 172-pounder, who becomes one more cog in the Rocket’s quest to qualify for a playoff berth in the North Division.
If Ylönen was overwhelmed by the reception, he kept it well hidden. He might not be loquacious, but looks everyone in the eye when answering questions to the best of his knowledge. There’s no denying he had a lot thrown at him in a short period of time after arriving in Montreal on Monday, when he was met at the airport by Rocket defenceman — and fellow Finn — Otto Leskinen.
On Wednesday, he’s expected to fly to Cleveland for a pair of games Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, against the Monsters. Laval head coach Joël Bouchard intimated it’s unlikely the team will rely immediately on Ylönen, at least not in the first game. He didn’t play last weekend and hasn’t skated in some time.
“It’s to put him in a win-win situation,” said Bouchard, who played with Ylönen’s father, Juha, with the Phoenix Coyotes, the prospect born in Arizona. “He’s a young player. It’s very important to make sure he’s comfortable. He’s coming in with a time change, new ice surface, new style of play, new teammates and new coaches. There’s a lot of new.
“He’s a good player. He’s played with men the last few years. We want to make sure we surround him the right way and give him a win-win opportunity. The goal is for him to learn and play for us.”
Ylönen, selected by the Canadiens in the second round (35th overall) of the 2018 entry draft, comes to Laval following two seasons with the top-tier Liiga club Lahti Pelicans. In 53 games as a rookie in 2018-19, he had 13 goals and 27 points. His production dipped slightly this season, with 12 goals and 22 points in 53 games while playing for a struggling team. He also had a minus-20 rating.
In the final year of his contract, and with the Pelicans out of playoff contention, management allowed him to come overseas early and skip the final two weeks of the schedule. But Ylönen joins the Rocket on a trial basis and isn’t under contract next season.
“This is a good chance for me to come here and help the team make the playoffs, hopefully,” he said. “Of course the season didn’t go as well as I wanted. It was a tough season. When it’s a tough season, it’s going to help me for the future.
“I’m just focusing on this season, hoping to make the playoffs. Then we’ll see.”
Ylönen’s greatest attributes are his skating and speed. It’s believed he can contribute offensively, but that remains to be seen. He said his physical play remains his biggest deficiency and he’ll undoubtedly be asked to gain some weight and become stronger.
“He’s an intense player that can bring energy to the game,” Bouchard said. “That doesn’t mean he’s just an energy player. He’s got some upside to score goals the right way and to make plays when it’s time.
“(But) how are they going to translate that to North America? What’s the time frame? How do they adjust? We don’t know that. … Trust me, we’ll welcome him with open arms at this point. We like him. He’s checking the boxes. He’s got a good attitude and wants to be a player. I’m here to develop NHL players, not good AHL players. I want guys who want to be pros with the Montreal Canadiens. That’s definitely what he wants or he wouldn’t be here.”
Ylönen said it was an honour being drafted by the Canadiens and is well aware of the franchise’s rich tradition. He met former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu once and remembers watching him play for Montreal as a child. If Ylönen can develop into half the player Koivu became, management undoubtedly will be pleased.
“Now, I have to work hard and try to play my best game here,” Ylönen said.
Although the Rocket won two of three on the road last week, it remains three points from a playoff spot with 17 games remaining. Ylönen becomes one more piece of the puzzle and will be counted on to contribute.
“He’s very skilled. He’ll make things happen on the ice,” Kotkaniemi said. “Everybody would like to play with a guy like that. He’s a smart guy. He’ll figure things out fast.”