Canadiens’ Caufield staying in Wisconsin could open spot for Ylonen

Finland's Santeri Virtanen (22), Jesse Ylonen (27) and Valtteri Puustinen (13) celebrate Ylonen's goal against Switzerland during first period semifinal IIHF world junior hockey championship action in Vancouver, on Friday January 4, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

I’d have paid more than a penny for Jesse Ylönen’s thoughts on last week’s announcement from the Montreal Canadiens that star prospect Cole Caufield is staying at the University of Wisconsin for at least one more season.

Of the thousands of people waiting on that decision to become official, no one should have been more compelled by the outcome than the Finn who made the (surprise) jump overseas to the AHL’s Laval Rocket from Liiga’s Lahti Pelicans at the beginning of this month, before the COVID-19 pandemic brought sports (and daily life as we knew it) to a screeching halt.

Boy, if I were Ylönen, I’d be doing two-a-day workouts in quarantine right about now.

I’m not saying the 20-year-old, who’s listed at 6-foot-1 and a meager 172 pounds, is suddenly going to be ready to jump into the role that might have been designated for Caufield on next season’s Canadiens. I’m merely suggesting that the opportunity to do exactly that became much more tangible for him the minute Caufield’s absence from the next Canadiens training camp was confirmed.

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Granted, Ylönen will likely be best served honing his craft and adapting to the small ice surface in Laval as of next (fall?), but he must see what the rest of us see when we look at the Canadiens’ depth chart at right wing — that the opportunity is right there for the taking. There you have Brendan Gallagher locked into a top line role, with Joel Armia (who scored a career-high 16 goals in 58 games this season) and depth players Jordan Weal and Dale Weise behind him.

With respect to the group, we’re not exactly looking at a murderer’s row of snipers.

And yes, even considering the likelihood of soon-to-be 37-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk returning in the off-season — if you weren’t fully convinced of it after Kovalchuk told reporters his February trade to the Washington Capitals was “not goodbye, for sure,” I’m told it’s all but a slam dunk the big right-hander will be back in Montreal on a bonus-laden contract — this is as good of a chance as Ylönen could have hoped for to show he can immediately fill a scoring role.

Meanwhile, I would think it’s consensus at this point that Caufield not being made available to do so was the right decision.

Even if some detractors want to argue that continuing to play for a Badgers team that underperformed this past season and just lost key players Alex Turcotte and K’Andre Miller to NHL teams isn’t optimal, it’s doubtful it’s going to hurt Caufield’s development to have a chance to dominate at that level after authoring a remarkable campaign that saw him tie Boston College’s Alex Newhook for most goals by a freshman (19) and finish third among NCAA rookies in points (36).

If Caufield’s coach, Tony Granato, thinks it’ll be good for him to continue to develop his all-around game, who are we to argue?

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Plus, the college schedule — teams practise on weekdays and play games on Fridays and Saturdays — allows the 5-foot-7 sharpshooter to spend more time in the gym and add significant weight and muscle to that 162-pound frame of his.

As Gallagher told us in an interview last week, that’s an essential process for any young player, but specifically for an undersized under-ager.

The 2010 fifth-round pick would know. Gallagher, who’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, followed up his selection by playing two more seasons with the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants.

If Gallagher didn’t immediately understand the benefit of spending extra time at the junior level, he certainly did after he made his professional debut with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and then made an immediate impact in 44 games with the Canadiens during the lockout-abridged 2012-13 season.

“I remember going back after that season and talking with my dad (his father, Ian, is his personal trainer) about summer training, and we could both see that even in a shortened season — and yeah, I played 36 AHL games before — we could see my body got worn down and deteriorated,” Gallagher said. “You just have to be that much more — and it comes with maturity, and it comes with age — but you have to be that much more prepared and aware in order to deal with that reality.

“There’s things you need to do throughout the year just to maintain, but there’s also things that, until you get that base and you’re able to put in that time and that work, your body won’t be able to handle the full 82-game season plus whatever you get to play beyond that.

“The opportunity for Cole to play a lighter schedule is an opportunity to create that muscle base you can rely on for when you go through a tough schedule and your body starts to break down. That base allows you to maintain.”

Caufield will work on building it up now, but he won’t have a full appreciation of what’s required until he spends a full season at the pro level.

That’s what makes Ylönen’s arrival at this juncture so interesting. Here’s a player who has 103 games of pro experience over two seasons with the Pelicans under his belt.

The 2018 second-rounder’s production of 25 goals and 49 points, against men and in a notoriously strong defensive league, is a sign of his potential.

Others are the speed at which Ylönen plays at, the agility and skill he displays regularly, and the offensive instincts he has.

And, as we saw at the 2019 World Junior Championship, the kid can shoot.

It remains to be seen if Ylönen will be doing it all in Montreal next season, but the possibility that he could became a lot more real with Caufield’s commitment to a sophomore season at Wisconsin.

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