The Canadians may have lost in the quarterfinals of the 2019 World Junior Championships to the eventual champion Finns, but the Montreal Canadiens were the tournament’s big winners. After years of prospect droughts – no participants in 2016, two in 2017 and three in 2018 – there were seven Canadiens prospects who played significant roles on their teams, with representation on each step of the medal podium and in the individual awards. The future of the team was on display in Vancouver and Victoria, and it was bright.
Jesse Ylonen – Finland
Gold medal winner Jesse Ylonen was plus-five and had three goals and three assists in seven tournament games playing on the third line and the power-play unit. He scored on a one-timer to open the scoring in the championship game.
The 35th overall pick in 2018 was ranked 28th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting after a strong season as the youngest player on Espoo United of the semi-pro Mestis. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound right winger is now with the Lahti Pelicans in SM-Liiga, colloquially known as the Finnish Elite League.
Ylonen is quick and can make plays at full speed, and has committed to working on his shot and the defensive side of the game so he can return to North America as a professional. “It’s a big thing. It’s my dream to play in Montreal one day,” he said after the tournament. “Every time I go there I can show the coaching staff what I can do. I want to get better every time I go, so I have to get better in Finland and show them that. I just have to continue working every day.”
When he does crack the Canadiens’ lineup, he’ll have plenty of friendly Finnish faces to ease the transition, although he’s no stranger to the NHL. He was born in Scottsdale, Arizona when his father, Juha, was playing for the then-Phoenix Coyotes. Juha also played for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators over his six NHL-season career, and was the head coach of Jokerit Helsinki in the KHL in 2016-17.
Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau – Team USA
Center Ryan Poehling had no points when Team USA fell to Finland in the gold medal game but was a dominant presence and had already done enough to be named the tournament’s top forward and MVP. He had five goals and eight points in seven games, including a natural hat trick and an assist in the third period of a round-robin game to erase Sweden’s four-goal lead.
The 25th overall pick in 2017, Poehling will return to St. Cloud State of the NCAA and their familiar Canadiens-esque logo, where his vision, passing and slick hands have already made him a star.
“I see him being a Mikko Koivu-type player because he’s got such a great 200-foot game,” according to St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson, referring to the Minnesota Wild captain and brother of former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu. “I see him being the guy who’s going to be able to play in any type of situation. He’s going to be playing against real high-end players that are very strong. He’s just got to keep working to make sure that he’s able to step into those roles at the next level.”
Goalie Cayden Primeau took the number one job from Boston Bruins prospect Kyle Keyser after a strong performance in the final round-robin game against Finland. He allowed one goal in the quarterfinals against the Czech Republic and stonewalled Russia in a 2-1 semifinal win.
Prior to the 2017 Entry Draft, Primeau had backstopped Team USA to gold at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, starred in the World Junior A Challenge and had an impressive rookie season with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. He inexplicably fell to the seventh round, where retiring scout Bill Berglund convinced Canadiens’ assistant general manager and director of amateur scouting Trevor Timmins to take Primeau with the 199th selection.
Timmins would’ve considered Primeau sooner, but the Canadiens already had Charlie Lindgren, Michael McNiven and Zachary Fucale in the pipeline behind Carey Price. “We might have another Tom Brady on our hands,” joked Timmins of the New England Patriots quarterback who has won five Super Bowls and three MVP awards and was picked 199th overall in the 2000 NFL Draft.
The son of former NHLer Keith Primeau, Cayden finished the World Juniors fourth in save percentage at .936 and will head back to the powerhouse Northeastern University Huskies in the NCAA’s Hockey East.
Alexander Romanov – Russia
Perhaps the surprise of the tournament, Alexander Romanov tied Poehling with eight points, one back of the tournament lead, an offensive explosion for the defensive defenseman. Named the tournament’s best defenseman, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Romanov turned 19 the day after winning the bronze medal and has two years left on his contract with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow.
Timmins sat up and took notice of Romanov at the 2017 World Junior A Challenge. “Right there, you could see it was on the smaller ice in Truro, N.S., and he really stepped his game up and played really well there,” said Timmins at the 2018 Entry Draft. “With less time and space, he showed us that he could make quick decisions with the puck. And he plays physical. He does it all.” (from “Alexander Romanov was a surprise pick by Canadiens at NHL Draft” – Montreal Gazette – 6/26/18)
Timmins was validated at the 2019 World Juniors, where Romanov’s speed and stick work covered mistakes that young defensemen tend to make while putting up unexpected numbers. He has silenced doubters after being taken in the second round (38th overall) in 2018 despite being ranked 115th among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting. He hadn’t even been invited to the NHL’s pre-draft scouting combine.
The Best of the Rest
Canada’s Nick Suzuki, a center and right winger acquired in the Max Pacioretty trade with the Vegas Golden Knights and an offensive star with the Guelph Storm, showed flashes of his offensive prowess on the power play, earning three assists. On the Canadian defense, Josh Brook, drafted 56th in 2017 and a Moose Jaw Warrior, was tasked with defending and pushing the puck, expanding his repertoire and showing poise under pressure.
Jacob Olofsson, a center on Team Sweden who was drafted 56th overall in 2018, went pointless but showed up defensively, even playing on the blue line when the team lost defensemen to the flu. Born in 2000, the youngster should be back to prove himself at next year’s tournament. Although the three failed to medal, they rounded out a group of seven Canadiens prospects who painted a masterpiece at the World Juniors.
Mike Ryan has written seven sports books, including Hockey Now! and Hockey Hall of Fame: Unstoppable, and one about weather phenomenon. He is covering the Montreal Canadiens from behind enemy lines in Toronto.