The Detroit Red Wings made a move to bolster their defensive depth on Sunday, claiming defenseman Olli Juolevi off of waivers. Drafted fifth overall in 2016, the Finnish defenseman was originally drafted by the Vancouver Canucks, and spent this season with the Florida Panthers. In 33 career games in the NHL, he has just three points, including the 10 games he played this season without registering a point.
The move temporarily gave the Red Wings nine defensemen on their roster, though they remedied that on Monday by placing 32-year-old defenseman Danny DeKeyser on waivers. A left-handed defenseman standing at 6-foot-2, Juolevi was ranked in the top-10 of the 2016 draft class by the majority of scouts, with Bob McKenzie ranking him sixth in the days leading up the draft. Fast forward to today, and Juolevi has yet to live up to the hype.
And yet this move could be a shrewd one for Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman. Despite the play of rookie defenseman Moritz Seider this season, Detroit’s defense has been their Achilles heel all season. So even though Juolevi hasn’t established himself as an NHL regular to this point in his career, the 23-year-old should have every opportunity to make something of himself in Motown.
Juolevi Has Shown Flashes
It’s not like Juolevi has just never looked like an NHL player. Despite his limited experience at the NHL level, fans and observers of the Canucks during his tenure in that organization saw a player that, at times, showed the goods to stick as an NHLer.
“During the 2020 bubble playoffs when he got his NHL debut against the Vegas Golden Knights, he looked very calm moving the puck and was very strong in the transition game,” said THW’s Matthew Zator, a credentialed writer that covers the Canucks. “He’s never been a flashy defenseman, just smart and always doing his job. You have to really isolate him on every shift to see the little things that he does well.”
It’s important to state that talent rarely ever just goes away. It would be one thing if only a few scouts were high on Juolevi during his draft season, but that wasn’t case. Most people in the scouting world had him labeled as the best defenseman in the 2016 class – a class that has since yielded Mikhail Sergachev, Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun, among many other solid NHL defensemen. While it is highly unlikely that Juolevi is going to magically become a top-pairing defenseman at this point, it is not out of the question that he comes into his own and becomes and everyday NHLer that is a key contributor for his team, especially on the penalty kill.
“His time in the American Hockey League (AHL) after his latest long-term injury was also encouraging, specifically when it came to killing penalties. That’s where his high hockey IQ was really noticeable,” Zator said.
Juolevi’s Potential With the Red Wings
There’s no question that injuries have played a role in limiting Juolevi to this point. He suffered a lower-body injury in January of this season, keeping him out of his return to Vancouver to face the Canucks. Prior to that, he suffered a serious knee injury that limited him to just 18 AHL games during the 2018-19 season, and just 45 AHL games the following season. Due to those injuries, as well as being on the fringe of the lineup in both Vancouver and Florida, he has played in just 99 regular season games (AHL and NHL) since the 2018-19 season.
“Unfortunately, the major injuries to his back and knee have slowed his skating down a bit which will likely limit his ceiling,” Zator said.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t still develop into something of value. In fact, Zator has faith that, in the right situation, Juolevi still has a path forward.
“With the right coaching and development, I still think he can become a serviceable bottom-pairing NHL defenseman who can jump into the top four in a pinch (kind of like a Troy Stecher). He will probably never become the top-pairing monster a lot of scouts projected for him out of the draft, but he still has the tools to be a regular NHLer. (Becoming) a good, solid two-way defenseman who can kill penalties is definitely still in the cards for him.”
With the declining play of DeKeyser, as well as the pending free agent status of veterans Nick Leddy and Marc Staal, the left side of the Red Wings’ defense is a bit of a question mark heading into the 2022 offseason. Prospects like Simon Edvinsson and Albert Johansson are on their way, but they can’t be depended on to save Detroit’s defense on their own. While their rebuild continues to hum along, the Red Wings can still find long-term value in taking on young players who are in need of a clean slate and a fresh opportunity. This is what they did when they traded for Robby Fabbri in 2019, and it’s the type of move that can provide cheap depth that can turn into a long-term answer for the team.
Juolevi Far From A Sure Thing
Make no mistake: anointing Juolevi as Yzerman’s next diamond in the rough is a bit premature. The Red Wings have three or four (depending on what the team does with DeKeyser) other left-handed defensemen on the team that can play their position to varying degrees of success. It’s not like Juolevi is walking into a situation where a spot is wide open for him. He has to be better than DeKeyser and Jordan Oesterle, and he has to better than them on a consistent basis.
“Be myself,” Juolevi said of the coaching staff’s message to him. “Play the way I can. Be ready and battle hard everyday.”
If he can get to that level, he’ll be a cheap, young defensemen that Yzerman and the rest of the Red Wings’ front office can decide whether or not there’s a long-term fit with. Juolevi is a pending restricted free agent at the end of the season, so there’s no real commitment to him beyond the rest of this season. If there isn’t a fit, it’s as simple as running him through waivers and seeing if another team is willing to roll the dice. Heck, if there isn’t a fit, maybe Yzerman looks to deal Juolevi ahead of this year’s trade deadline, even if it’s for a late-round draft pick.
It is highly unlikely that this move will be anything monumental in the grand scheme of the Red Wings’ rebuild, but if you’re going to speed up the rebuilding process, you have to be willing to take a chance on low-risk, moderate-reward players like this. There clearly is some untapped potential with this player; now the onus is on the player and the Red Wings’ coaching staff to start tapping into it.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.