It’s no secret that Olli Juolevi has had a difficult road to the NHL. Coming out of the 2016 Draft as the fifth overall pick has probably been the height of his success so far. By no fault of his own, his development path took a few hard turns due to some major injuries to his knee and back that required major surgery. Since being selected by the Vancouver Canucks in 2016, he has played a total of 208 games in five seasons. That’s just a drop in the bucket when you compare that to the total games played by classmates Mikhail Sergachev (410) and Charlie McAvoy (342).
In a world without those injuries, I have no doubt that Juolevi would be further along in his development. Going into the draft, he was ranked as one of the top defencemen with pundits like McKeen’s Hockey and TSN’s Bob McKenzie projecting him as the fifth and sixth overall pick respectively. Lauded for his quiet all-around game and tremendous mobility and playmaking skills, his ceiling was high in the NHL.
Now 23 years old with only 23 games of NHL experience and a ceiling of only a bottom-pairing defenceman, Juolevi has unfortunately been labeled a bust by many fans and experts. Though, as I said before, his path to the NHL has been far from ideal.
Juolevi Finally Makes His NHL Debut
After a season that saw Juolevi play a career-high 45 games in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Utica Comets, he finally made an appearance in an NHL game during the qualifying round of the 2020 Playoffs. The COVID-19 pandemic had just canceled the 2019-20 season and the Canucks were fighting for a chance to play in the first round of the actual playoffs against the St. Louis Blues.
Even though Juolevi only played 6:16 in his debut, he acquitted himself well with a few calm outlet passes and controlled breakouts through the neutral zone. He also looked comfortable playing against NHL competition, in a playoff game no less. Basically, his development looked like it was on the right track going into the 2020-21 season.
Juolevi’s Rookie Season Went Well…Until It Didn’t
It was smooth sailing for Juolevi entering the 2020-21 season. He impressed the brass enough to make the team out of training camp and he had a consistent spot in the lineup until the end of February. He even eclipsed the 20-minute mark against the Montreal Canadiens and scored his first NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators a few games later. In addition to all that, his defensive game was on point, as he only had two games where he finished with a minus in the plus/minus column. His Corsi-for numbers were also strong, and he was starting to gain chemistry with Tyler Myers on the third pairing. Except for a stretch of seven games where he was a healthy scratch, everything was finally coming up roses for him and the Canucks.
Then, head coach Travis Green made him a healthy scratch again on Feb 25 in favour of Travis Hamonic, who was just returning from injury. This time, it became much longer than just a couple of weeks. It wasn’t until Apr. 20 against the Toronto Maple Leafs that Juolevi saw action again. During that time, the pandemic also hit the locker room hard, and he was one of the ones that suffered the most.
(Juolevi) was one of our guys who got really sick. He lost a bunch of weight there in those three weeks. I think he lost 10-15 pounds.Jim Benning on Olli Juolevi
When Juolevi finally returned to the lineup, he went through a stretch of games where he didn’t look like himself. He looked slow, his decision-making was questionable at times and there were multiple instances when he was danced by opposing forwards.
Usually, when Juolevi is on his game, he’s making smart passes, great reads and he stays relatively unnoticeable during his shifts. Mostly because he’s making the right plays out there. We rarely saw that from him in the last eight games of his season, likely because he was still recovering from the pandemic that gripped the Canucks for three weeks. When you lose 10-15 pounds and go through the turmoil he probably experienced, it takes more than a few weeks to get back to normal. That’s why everyone should give him the benefit of the doubt and reset the clock going into 2021-22.
Juolevi’s Time is Now
With an expiring contract going into the offseason and uncertainty around where he fits in the Canucks plans, Benning offered Juolevi a one-year, $750,000 “show me” contract. He ended up signing it on Aug 9, and he will go into training camp ready to battle for the sixth spot on the defensive depth chart with Brad Hunt and Jack Rathbone.
Even though Rathbone has the higher ceiling right now, Juolevi has something his competition does not – the ability to kill penalties. With Alex Edler moving on in free agency to the Los Angeles Kings and Nate Schmidt dealt to the Winnipeg Jets, the Canucks will need a defenceman to log more minutes on the penalty kill.
Juolevi has experience killing penalties with the Comets and Canucks, and has become a little bit of a specialist at it. He is smart with his stick, willing to block shots, and has displayed the hockey IQ to excel in the role. Seeing that Rathbone and Hunt aren’t known as great penalty killers, he might have a leg up on his competition when it comes to the sixth defence spot.
Having said that, Juolevi will still have to perform in training camp to land that spot. He should have the motivation on a one-year contract and considering the season he had in 2020-21, he will want to prove his doubters wrong and resume the positive development path he started before Green and the pandemic stopped it in its tracks.
Canucks Need To Give Juolevi the Chance To Succeed
For Juolevi to develop into a full-time NHL defenceman, the Canucks need to allow him to do so. No more healthy scratches and long layoffs. They have to give him consistent minutes and defence partners and coaching that will help him round out his defensive game.
With defenceman whisperer Brad Shaw leading him on that front, Juolevi should have that in spades. I say, pair him with Myers all season and let him grow and develop. If that happens, I really believe he can still become a top-four defenceman in this league.
The time is now for the Canucks to place all their chips on Juolevi, and for him to reward them for it. If developed properly from here on out, he could still become a defenceman in the vein of Sami Salo and Niklas Hjalmarsson. They may not be Sergachev, McAvoy, or Chychrun, but they were still valuable top-four defencemen in their prime. With the defence core the way it is, they could use someone like that right now. It’s time for Juolevi to step into the spotlight and hit his potential in the NHL. If he doesn’t, I fear his time in Vancouver will be over before the curtain closes on the 2021-22 season.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.