It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When the Vancouver Canucks stepped up and selected Olli Juolevi with the fifth overall draft pick in 2016, the team willingly passed over more exciting forward prospects — including Matthew Tkachuk.
They did so because they expected to have a nearly ready-made player to add to their aging defence corps. A player who could challenge for a spot on their roster in a year or two.
“We love his hockey sense, his ability to read the play defensively, his ability to handle the puck and get it up ice fast,” Benning told Sportsnet following the selection. “His ability to figure out the play defensively, use his stick , use good positioning… His ability to get the puck and move it up ice to the forwards fast, I think he’ll fit in to what we’re trying to do in Vancouver.”
Of course, that’s not how the script has played out.
Juolevi returned to the OHL and stagnated. Perhaps that should’ve been the season he went to play pro in Finland instead of the following year in 2017-18. Maybe he would’ve torn the Liiga apart in that second year. Hell, maybe he wouldn’t have tore up his knee last season in the American League. Who knows with these butterfly effect situations.
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What the organization is left with is the lone remaining player from the top 17 selections of the 2017 draft yet to see an NHL contest. Just four other skaters from the 2016 first-round have yet to suit up for their NHL squads — Logan Stanley (18th), Kieffer Bellows (19th), Riley Tufte (25th), and Lucas Johansen (28th).
It’s a dubious distinction and one the player and organization surely want to remedy in short order. This is why all parties involved should be pleased with how this season has played out thus far. And it’s also why Canucks fans should put down their pitchforks and maintain a semblance of hope for the 21-year-old.
While Canucks management likely learned a valuable lesson from the 2016 draft — don’t draft for immediate need — there’s still reason to believe Juolevi will play a prominent role in the organization as they inch closer to contending-status.
This remains a player who still possesses top-four upside in a system lacking in such assets. His path may have taken a few unpredicted twists and turns, but it’s finding it’s course, and the needle is pointed straight at Rogers Arena.
Impressive point production
Since entering the American League at the beginning of 2018-19, the former London Knights’ standout has produced 34 points in 52 games. Despite it being broken up between two seasons thanks to that knee injury, his 0.65 point-per-game mark places him amongst some fairly good company among other 21-year-old defensive prospects:
- Timothy Liljegren (0.73)
- Juuso Valimaki (0.70)
- Jake Bean (0.69)
The 6-foot-3, 198-pound defenceman has been accomplishing these totals through mostly sustainable metrics as well. His shot rates have dipped a bit this season, but his conversion rates are in-line with expected norms.
Starting to find his form this season
When it was announced that the left-shot defenceman’s 2018-19 season was prematurely ending due to torn meniscus in his right knee, the collective groan from Canucks fandom bellowed loudly.
What isn’t discussed as much is the time that it takes for a player to get back to form even after the healing process is complete. Missing that much time (9 months) is a cavernous hole to climb out of.
We’re about 13 months removed from the surgery and you can just now start to see the mobility and confidence regaining its previous form.
Recent hot streak
Olli Juolevi with a goal, an assist and 3 shots tonight.
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 18, 2020
That confidence, coupled with a short-term injury to Brogan Rafferty and an increase in offensive deployment, has helped facilitate the most productive stretch of Juolevi’s professional career.
In 12 games dating back to December 21, Juolevi has two goals, 13 points, and a +7 rating. He’s finding lanes and moving the puck around with consistency. It’s brought his full-season totals to 21 points in 34 games.
You can see his acceleration and quickness improving.
With an assist this morning, Olli Juolevi extended his point streak to 4 games and 6 points.
He has 13 points in his last 12 games and 21 in 34 on the season. #Canucks
— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) January 20, 2020
After being well known as a turnstile artist, watching forwards burn him wide, he’s finding his gap control a little better and mitigating the chances against. At this stage, he’s progressing nicely towards being ready for his first foray into the NHL if and when an injury or two arrive on the left side.