Olli Juolevi is feeling healthy and more confident than ever since his North American pro debut two and a half years ago.
Somewhat of a forgotten Canucks prospect, there hasn’t been much buzz around the 22-year-old since Vancouver picked him fifth overall at the 2016 NHL Draft. Juolevi will likely never live up to the hype of that high selection, but he’s in the NHL now, and could still develop into an important player for the Canucks.
Given the team’s lack of success developing defencemen outside of Quinn Hughes, that would be a huge development for the team. Vancouver’s blue line is long in the tooth outside of Hughes, with Alex Edler (34), Jordie Benn (33), Tyler Myers (31), Travis Hamonic (30), and Nate Schmidt (29) at the top of the depth chart.
Coming into this season, the Canucks were banking that one of their young defencemen — Jalen Chatfield, Brogan Rafferty, Jack Rathbone, or Juolevi — could step into the lineup as a regular on the blue line.
Chatfield had some initial success, but after appearing in nine games, he has been relegated to the press box. Rafferty, meanwhile, got into one game and it didn’t go well.
Then there’s Juolevi.
After appearing in seven of the team’s first eight games, Juolevi was removed from the lineup for seven straight.
He’s been used carefully by head coach Travis Green, but Juolevi has quietly put together a string of solid games, with the Finnish defenceman’s reinsertion into the lineup four games ago coinciding with the steadiest defensive stretch of the season for the Canucks.
“I’m able to see the plays earlier now,” Juolevi told reporters from Calgary. “Everything is slowing down a little bit, and you know what the guys are trying to do. It’s way different here when the guys are so smart and skilled, it takes some time to get used to it, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable right now.”
Juolevi now ranks fourth among Canucks defencemen in Corsi-for percentage (48.25%) — behind Edler, Schmidt, and Hughes — and has only been on the ice for four goals-against at five-on-five this season. He’s even shown off a physical element of his game, with the 6-foot-2 defenceman laying out Matthew Tkachuk recently.
Juolevi moving Tkachuk out of the way like he did at the 2016 draft pic.twitter.com/SIBPMkzrnd
— Rob Williams (@RobTheHockeyGuy) February 14, 2021
“You never know when you get your first games in the NHL how things are going to go, and I think I’ve done a good job so far,” Juolevi said. “Just want to try to get better every day, and I’m feeling good right now.”
Asked about potential adjustments he’s made regarding skating and pivoting, things he struggled with in the AHL, Juolevi pointed to the fact that he’s not playing hurt anymore.
Juolevi had back surgery in the summer of 2018 and then underwent season-ending knee surgery in December of that year.
“Well, I think, first of all, it helps when you’re healthy,” he said. “It helps with the skating, so it just takes some time to get back. I’ve been working hard since whenever I got healthy, and for sure it’s helping.”
A restricted free agent at season’s end, Juolevi is also playing for a contract, and perhaps even a Canucks protection spot for the Seattle expansion draft.
It’ll be up to Juolevi to prove he continues to belong in the lineup, which could become more difficult soon, as Hamonic is getting closer to returning from injury.