Jesse Ylonen has shown a fair bit of promise in his first two seasons in North America. That said, it certainly feels like he has a lot on the line in 2022-23.
Usually when I do these columns, the focus is on a player who is on the fringes of getting a second contract. That isn’t the case here. He has already done enough to warrant a new contract of some sort next summer. But even with that in mind, it sure feels like there is a lot on the line for Ylonen next season as it pertains to his status in the organization.
Right now, he is one of Montreal’s better prospects on the right wing. He hasn’t looked out of place in his limited NHL action and he was decent in Laval during the regular season before a playoff showing that he’d probably like to forget. It was during the postseason that really planted the seed for me that his prospect window is narrower than it might seem as he struggled considerably when the physicality picked up.
Let’s state the obvious first. He’s not one of management’s guys in that he wasn’t drafted by this regime; he was picked by Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins. That’s not a factor that will cripple his chances on its own but all things being equal, similar prospects brought in by this regime are going to be viewed more favourably. For example, someone like Emil Heineman – a second-rounder himself like Ylonen – probably sits higher on their internal organizational depth chart. That’s not impossible to overcome by itself but it certainly doesn’t help.
Then there’s the jumbled winger situation in Montreal. Forget about Ylonen or any young forward not named Juraj Slafkovsky making a push for a roster spot in training camp as right now, they don’t have enough spots for the veterans that they have. Injuries and maybe a trade or two could change that but right now, there’s no room for Ylonen to have a chance at breaking camp with the big club.
You might be thinking to yourself that this logjam is a short-term problem. And you’d be right to an extent with Jonathan Drouin, Evgenii Dadonov, Paul Byron, and Sean Monahan all a year away from unrestricted free agency. But none of those play Ylonen’s position. Cole Caufield, Josh Anderson, and Brendan Gallagher are all signed or under team control for at least five more years and, like Ylonen, they’re all right wingers. By virtue of need or the fact no one would take on the contract, those guys aren’t going anywhere. Joel Armia is still in the mix for a little while as well as he’s signed through 2024-25 and doesn’t have a deal that’s easy to move.
Granted, the Habs can move someone like Caufield or Anderson over to the left side but with the team having multiple right-shot centres in the mix, going with an all-righty line might not be desirable from a long-term perspective; teams want some left-right balance up front just as they do on the back end. That’s a temporary solution, not a long-term one which doesn’t help Ylonen’s chances of being an impact player with the Habs as things stand.
Ylonen is still in control of his own future in the sense that if he goes down to Laval and dominates, he’ll force management’s hand eventually. Some of the surplus forwards will be traded and injuries will inevitably strike, especially on a team that doesn’t have realistic playoff aspirations where players can be shut down for very minor issues. There will be recalls and he needs to ensure he plays himself into being the first one when winger help is needed.
In his first two years in North America, Ylonen has been good but not great. Decent but not dominant. He needs to be dominant next season. Otherwise, he’ll get through 2022-23 the same way last season went with a handful of games with the Canadiens and top-six production with the Rocket that doesn’t really stand out.
Then what? He’ll be waiver-eligible in 2023-24 and if he hasn’t established himself by then, he’s a player that will be on the fringes of the roster. Management won’t want to lose him on waivers so he’ll either sit or play in a role that’s not suited for him where he won’t produce much. It’d be Nikita Scherbak all over again. In the blink of an eye, Ylonen would go from being a legitimate prospect to waiver-blocked organizational filler.
With the quality and volume of prospects in the system (with more coming), there’s not a lot of wiggle room to work with for Ylonen. Right now, he’s still one of Montreal’s better forward prospects but if he doesn’t take a big step forward in 2022-23, that will change in a hurry. That’s why he’s on the hot seat this coming season.