Just four players from the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft have yet to suit up for a regular season game. Olli Juolevi is one of them, but that’s about to change.
So far at training camp, it has certainly looked like Juolevi will be on the roster to start the season. In drills and at Wednesday night’s scrimmage, Juolevi has skated with Tyler Myers on what could very well be the third pairing on opening night.
Juolevi made his Canucks debut during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, playing one game against the Minnesota Wild. He didn’t get a lot of ice time, but he certainly didn’t look out of place in his limited minutes. Now, with several other defencemen leaving in the offseason, the Canucks need a rookie defenceman to step in and Juolevi is the obvious choice.
“There's obviously a reason Olli's partnered with Myers,” said head coach Travis Green. “I want to see how he looks with that pairing. We've put some young defenceman with veteran guys, but I think he looks good.”
Those other young defencemen include Jalen Chatfield and Jack Rathbone, who have likewise been paired with NHL defencemen to gauge their readiness for the NHL. Chatfield has skated with Quinn Hughes, while Rathbone has spent time with Jordie Benn. With the imminent arrival of Travis Hamonic — assuming he officially signs with the Canucks after Micheal Ferland is placed on LTIR — only one of those young defencemen will be in the lineup. So far, Juolevi has been the best of the three.
At the Canucks’ scrimmage on Wednesday night, Juolevi played a steady, confident game, showcasing his hockey IQ even in that chaotic environment. He was constantly putting both himself and the puck in the right places on the ice.
“The confidence level is high,” said Juolevi. “I think the first couple days of the camp has been really good and I'm just excited to be back playing hockey.”
It helps that Juolevi has already been inside the bubble with the Canucks during the playoffs, spending time with the team and practicing with them. That includes Myers, who has helped Juolevi settle in.
“I got to know Mysie a little bit during the summer and it's really easy to talk and he knows a lot about how to play this game,” said Juolevi and he reiterated it again later: “I think it's just easier when you have a guy like that next to you. You can always ask questions and if there's something you're not sure about or you need some advice, it's really easy to ask, especially a guy like Mysie, who's always real helpful.”
Myers has been impressed by the young Finn as well.
“We've talked to each other a lot the first couple of days here and I really like how much he is communicating on the ice right now and even in practice,” said Myers. “I think when you look at the game that Olli played in the bubble, I think that was a big step for him. I thought he played really well and it's a good chance for him to build off that and I think the first couple days here he's done very well.”
The PK advantage
One thing that gives Juolevi a leg up on his competition is his ability to play both sides of special teams. With the Utica Comets, Juolevi developed into one of their top penalty killers, using his excellent positioning to block more shots than anyone else on the penalty kill by a wide margin.
With a key penalty killer in Chris Tanev gone, along with Oscar Fantenberg and Troy Stecher, the Canucks need defencemen that can step into that role. Hamonic and Nate Schmidt will certainly be expected to play on the penalty kill, but it’s something that will be expected as well of whichever rookie steps into the lineup.
“There’s only six defencemen,” said Green. “I don’t imagine Quinn Hughes is going to kill a lot of penalties, so there’s only five left and that's part of our decision making going into putting our final roster together. [Juolevi’s] still got to make the team for starters and then he's got to make the opening lineup. And then we'll make that decision as we go along through camp to see how he looks in the games and certain scenarios in our practices when he's killing penalties.
“I think we project him to be that type of player. Smart, heavy, bigger guy — penalty killing is gonna have to be in his repertoire.”
Juolevi’s as confident in his ability to play on the penalty kill at the NHL level as he is in the rest of his game.
“Last year I played a lot of PK,” said Juolevi. “It was something I hadn't played in a little while, and I showed I can play that also at a high level. And I think it's gonna help me here. I really think that I can be helpful in the PK for this team also.”
Juolevi's long and bumpy road to the NHL
It’s been a long time coming for Juolevi, which has been a source of frustration for the Canucks fanbase, who has seen players picked after him already have a significant impact for their teams.
Drafted fifth overall, Juolevi was expected to be a key part of the Canucks rebuild. They took Juolevi over forwards like Matthew Tkachuk and Clayton Keller in part because the team needed a top-tier prospect on defence. Four years later, that top-tier prospect turned out to be Quinn Hughes instead and Juolevi has yet to play his rookie season.
It’s not entirely his fault. The 22-year-old defenceman has faced more than his fair share of injury woes over the past few years. In 2018, he had a microdiscectomy, a type of minor back surgery to repair a herniated disc. Early in the 2018-19 season, he suffered a knee injury that eventually required surgery.
This past season in the AHL, Juolevi dealt with what was termed “hip soreness” for most of the year, eventually causing him to sit for a month before the season itself was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps the months without hockey were a blessing in disguise for Juolevi, who entered the playoff bubble finally feeling 100% healthy and quickly impressed the Canucks coaching staff and moved up the depth chart. Now, about to enter his rookie NHL season, Juolevi is brimming with confidence.
“Just the way I can play a defensive game now, it’s a huge difference,” said Juolevi in November about his development from his draft year. “I’m definitely a better player overall. I think I’m really close to the player I always thought I could be. I think my pucks skills and my hockey IQ has always been there, and now you add that defensive side of the game, it’s going to be really good.”