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Can Jesse Ylonen Find a Niche Role With the Montreal Canadiens

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Montreal Canadiens Jesse Ylonen

Coming into the 2023-24 NHL season, it made sense to think that this could be a big year for Jesse Ylonen as a Montreal Canadiens player.

Turning 24 years old at the outset of the season, Ylonen appeared poised to both get opportunities this season and make the most of them.

For the first time in his career, Ylonen started the season in the NHL instead of the AHL and was coming off of a successful 37-game campaign in the NHL last year where he scored at a 35-point per 82-game pace, which is solid third-line production.

Red hot coming out of training camp, Ylonen had a very strong preseason where he led all Montreal Canadiens players with over a single game played in expected goal share at 83.32 percent. That kind of dominance was never going to continue, but the fact that the Canadiens out-chanced the opposition 16-3 while Ylonen was on the ice was an encouraging start.

Ultimately though, preseason performance doesn’t mean much unless you use it as a launching pad into the regular season, which wasn’t the case for Ylonen.

A Season Off the Rails

It was nice to see Ylonen lift a Jayden Struble rebound over the pad of Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Samuel Ersson in the Canadiens’ 4-1 win over the Flyers a few short games ago, but it was also a reminder of how little he’s been able to make that happen this year. His fourth goal of the season was his first point since January 6th (21 games), and his first goal since he scored two against the Vegas Golden Knights on November 16th, a span of 44 games.

Through the first stretch of the season, the impression I saw most frequently about Ylonen was that Martin St. Louis and the coaching staff didn’t seem to look for the opportunities to get the most out of Ylonen that they do for other young players. I do think that is at least partially true, but we also have to look at why that is.

Through the first eight games of the season, Ylonen received playing time between 11:09 and 14:19 each game but has since garnered over 10 minutes of ice time or more just 24 times in 48 games.

In fact, his average ice time is exactly 10 minutes per game since that first stretch of the season. It doesn’t sound like much to worth with, but Michael Pezzetta has averaged two minutes and 12 seconds less per game and still managed to outproduce Ylonen offensively while playing three fewer games, and without the 47:44 of powerplay time Ylonen has been afforded.

What’s even more mystifying is that Ylonen, who is known to have a killer shot, has been putting fewer pucks towards the net than Pezzetta as well, from less dangerous areas.

Where Did the Shot Go?

Known for his shot before he came over to North America, it has been a serious struggle to get the shooting opportunities he wants in the NHL. This season Ylonen has only managed to put 7.35 shot attempts towards the net per 60 minutes of ice time at 5-vs-5, a big drop from 9.44 in 37 games last season, and 9.35 through 14 games in 2021-22.

While Ylonen has managed to get a really strong percentage of his shot attempts on net at 68 percent, they’re coming from less dangerous areas overall, with a 20 percent drop in shot attempts from the slot area compared to last season. When the player who possesses the highest quality shot on their line is shooting less often and from further out, that’s an issue.

There does appear to be a confidence issue with Ylonen offensively, but there are two factors I think we need to look into before placing the blame all on him.

Quality of Linemates

While it’s not like other fourth-line players aren’t playing with the same quality of teammates as Ylonen this season, I do think his game is less suited to producing offence on the fourth line than others.

Some players create offence on their own, and some are complementary players who slide into the right spots to produce their offence. My hunch is that Ylonen fits into that latter category. Because of that, playing on the fourth line of the Montreal Canadiens, a rebuilding team that severely lacks depth up front, puts him in a situation where he can’t play a comfortable game because the puck will rarely come to him in the right spot.

Pezzetta meanwhile, makes things happen with reckless abandon, which creates offence at a relatively consistent, but low level. A lot of prototypical fourth-line players fit that mould, and a lot of skilled complementary players who have more offence, in theory, get lost in the churn on fourth lines who can’t create the plays necessary for those players.

You often hear coaches referring to what they want from a fourth line being a ‘simple game’, for this reason.

Silly Season

On top of not necessarily fitting his role this year, we’ve also got to bring up how absurdly weird the Montreal Canadiens’ scoring trends have been this year. Sometimes you see results that simply don’t make sense.

For example, this season the Montreal Canadiens’ defencemen have outscored their expected goals by 62.7 percent at 5-vs-5, 5, while their forwards have underscored their expected goals by 20.8 percent.

That’s really weird! And I don’t believe it’s repeatable.

Similarly, Ylonen has had horrid luck with notching points for the goals he’s been on the ice for, recording a point on just 42.1 percent of them. That ranks 389th of 395 forwards in the NHL this season who have played 400 or more minutes at 5-vs-5. While that could be good news for next season, Ylonen has also seen a higher-than-team-average on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage this season.

Is There a Fit?

Heading into restricted free agency this summer, Ylonen isn’t in a great bargaining position.

He’s a player who should be able to score, who hasn’t been able to factor into scoring, and whose underlying metrics are not great. He does have a bit of a positive impact defensively, but according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s recent breakdown for The Athletic, he’s doing that in very sheltered minutes.

One bit of fortune may be smiling on Ylonen, though. Christian Dvorak is close to a surprise return to the lineup after it was assumed he was done for the year, and in a tiny sample size, he and Ylonen played well together this season.

Taking advantage of a small, but decent opportunity to end the season could help Ylonen take a step towards erasing a season of promise that has mostly turned to ash in his hands.

Whether it’s on the Canadiens or another team, there’s enough talent there to be an NHLer, but it’s up to Jesse Ylonen himself to take the next step.