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Hockey, Sports

Canucks prospect Juolevi is better than you think

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Janik Beichler Jan 07, 2018 12:01 am 4,072

It just wasn’t meant to be for Vancouver Canucks prospect Olli Juolevi and Team Finland at the 2018 World Juniors.

Equipped with a stacked blue line and elite forward prospects like the leading scorer of KHL Jokerit, Eeli Tolvanen (NSH), the Finns were counted among the favourites for gold in Buffalo. But with a 4-3 shootout loss against the Czech Republic in the quarter-final, it was all over. Finland went home with an 8.57 shooting percentage and a lot of disappointment.

For Canucks fans, however, it could have gone worse.

Juolevi, representing his country at the World Juniors for the third time, had an excellent tournament, and even capped it off with an outstanding two-point performance in the quarters.

Knowing Juolevi is the only top-11 pick from the 2016 Draft without an NHL game on his resume, it can be easy to get upset. Confirmation bias starts ruling fans’ thoughts – instead of seeing what Juolevi does well, all that matters are his mistakes, while players like Matthew Tkachuk (CGY) are succeeding in the NHL.

But, truth be told, Juolevi had an excellent tournament. Not error-free. But excellent overall.

Defensive-zone play

It all starts in the defensive zone.

Juolevi was always advertised as a strong two-way player, which includes strong defensive-zone play. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound defenceman displayed that throughout the tournament, making smart decisions and playing strong positionally.

He’s not a very physical player; it’s not his style, and we shouldn’t expect him to develop much more of that. But, he has strong defensive awareness that helps him cause turnovers in the defensive zone without having to add that physical element. Hockey IQ and an active stick are often all it takes.

Offensive skill

Of course, Juolevi mostly stood out at the other end of the ice, though, and this is what has fans most excited – and rightfully so. With Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson emerging as power-play specialists, all the Canucks are missing now is a defenceman to join them.

Juolevi could be that guy.

Playing professional hockey in Finland this season, he has 14 points (5-9-14) in 20 games and has been steadily improving.

Both Pettersson and Juolevi have seen significant power-play time on the left circle – Boeser’s position with the Canucks – at this tournament. But looking at Juolevi’s tools, there is no reason to believe he can’t be the defender walking the blue line.

On the man advantage, the 19-year-old displayed excellent hockey sense along with a lot of patience. He rarely rushed plays but rather waited out his opposition until he saw a passing lane open up, at which point he could play perfect passes to set up scoring chances.

Coming through the left side, Juolevi created scoring chances on the man advantage again and again, especially in the quarterfinal against the Czechs.

One of the most important things on the power play, which the Canucks have been struggling to do, is a quick rotation in the offensive zone. That is the only way to pull the defenders out of position and create rooms to score.

Juolevi has shown he is capable of taking the puck in the middle and carrying it deep along the boards, all while keeping his head up to make a passing play or find a shooting lane. He may not be as dynamic as guys like Erik Brannstrom (VGK) on Team Sweden or Cale Makar (COL) on Team Canada, but he is a smooth skater with good-enough agility to succeed on the power play.

By the numbers

Juolevi didn’t just look good. The numbers tell a similar story – especially in transition play, which is a crucial part of a successful two-way defenceman at the NHL level.

Thanks to Darryl Keeping, who tracked games of the World Juniors, we have access to some interesting stats.

As shown in the chart above, Juolevi had great success exiting the zone. His controlled-exit percentage even led all Finnish defencemen in the four games tracked.

Juolevi didn’t stand out with fancy end-to-end plays or dynamic skating, but he made smart plays in all three zones. He forced turnovers in the defensive zone, started the attack from his own end, set up teammates for scoring chances, and had a great goal himself.

Outlook

There is nothing wrong with being upset about the Canucks’ 2016 first-round pick. Players picked immediately after Juolevi have already had success in the NHL, as have other available defencemen in Mikhail Sergachev (TBL), Charlie McAvoy (BOS), and Jakob Chychrun (ARI).

But, looking at Juolevi’s performance at the World Juniors objectively, Canucks fans should be excited for what he can bring to the table.

Juolevi will be in the NHL soon. And once he shows up, he will deliver.

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Janik Beichler
Hockey writer and Future Considerations scout. I play the game sometimes.
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