The Vancouver Canucks have a healthy crop of young and upcoming talent in the system and on the blue line, and Olli Juolevi is the frontrunner.
The 19-year-old Finn is a dynamic defender that has excelled on numerous stages ranging from the OHL to the SM-Liiga in Finland. Juolevi’s terrific skating ability gives him the option of jumping into the rush and contributing offensively, while still being capable of returning to a defensive position.
“He shows mastery of his position under the most challenging of circumstances, and his poise, calm and assuredness are the stuff of pillar-style defencemen.” – Craig Button of TSN
This poses the question – is Olli Juolevi ready for the NHL, and if not, when will he be?
Juolevi in North America
For the 2015-16 season, Juolevi, the Helsinki product, landed on North American soil and began playing for the London Knights of the OHL. This was a major instance of his career because he was transitioning from the big European ice to the smaller North American sheet — some players experience difficulty during the transition.
In two seasons with the Knights, Juolevi chalked up 19 goals and 84 points in 115 games while carrying an impressive plus-64 rating. Oh, and he also hoisted the Memorial Cup in his first season.
Juolevi’s great hockey-IQ and poise, paired with his smooth skating, translated into immense success in the OHL. His confident play in such a different style of hockey was nothing short of impressive and his ability to find as much success as he did, is also an impressive feat.
Juolevi Back to the Big Ice
The smooth-skating Finn represented his country three times at the World Junior Championship and impressed scouts and fans across the board with his stellar play. In his first go at the tournament, back in 2016, Juolevi contributed nine helpers on his way to a gold medal — he tied for the lead in defensive scoring. The following tournament was an extreme disappointment for Juolevi and the Finns and he earned a fair amount of criticism for it — the Finns placed ninth in the 2017 tournament.
Fans and scouts alike grew to be concerned with Juolevi’s progression and it wasn’t clear if he had become stagnant or not. For that reason, the 2018 WJC was a very important test for the youngster — he was expected to carry a lot of the weight for the team, especially in a leadership role. He bounced back with four points in five games and a relatively strong performance throughout. His strong two-way presence was in the spotlight and some, but not all, critics were silenced.
Ready for the NHL?
Juolevi will be an NHL defencemen, that much is certain, but when? One could argue that he’s ready to make the leap next season. Others could err on the side of caution and say he’s still a year or two away.
Both options have pros and cons but I’d say that he is, in fact, ready to play for the Canucks. On any other team, I’d say he’s not ready, but where the Canucks are at this stage of the franchise, I’m confident he can fit in.
However, in preseason action with the Canucks, he looked scrambly and out of character. Perhaps it was nerves or maybe it was something greater. He did not resemble the defender that everyone had come to expect of the fifth overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft, and to say the least, it made people nervous. But, some aren’t worried about his lackluster preseason performance.
“They’re (preseason games) hard to play in. The play is broken. Players do things they’re not supposed to do. It’s a different game and they’re (Brock Boeser and Juolevi) also feeling the pressure. We’ll see different players at training camp.” – Corey Hirsch on Sportsnet-650.
The Canucks’ power play isn’t great, but it’s okay, and it’s largely due to a serious lack of offensive skill on their blue line. Alex Edler isn’t even close to being capable of quarterbacking the man-advantage. Juolevi could be a huge addition on the back end — his smooth-skating and offensive skill would make for easy breakouts, smooth zone-entry and more chances in the offensive zone. Not to mention, while playing for TPS Turku in Finland, he’s being mentored by former Canuck and power play weapon, Sami Salo.
He has proven his abilities on the big ice and also the smaller sheet, won a Memorial Cup and a WJC, and put up impressive numbers at every level he’s played at. Those facts, in tandem with the Canucks’ need on the back end, give me 100% confidence in the notion of Juolevi playing some serious minutes in the NHL next season.
I don’t think that he’ll play the entire season, but stranger things have happened. I predict a 60/40 split between the Canucks and the Utica Comets in the AHL.
As for point production, I wouldn’t expect anything too spectacular for a couple of seasons — he only has 16 points in 24 games for TPS Turku. Those are obviously pretty solid numbers, but it’s nowhere near the level of play in the NHL.