The Vancouver Canucks have been trying to find a true, number one defenceman for as long as I’ve followed them. They’ve had their share of 1A or 1B blue liners, but never a Norris calibre blue liner who can dictate play from the moment they fly over the boards to their return trip back to the bench.
They hope to have found that player in London Knights defenceman Olli Juolevi, who the Canucks took fifth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
A year later, doubts abound about the likelihood of Juolevi hitting those lofty heights. Some have even gone so far as to suggest his development has plateaued. Contrary to those suggestions, I think Juolevi’s grown as a player in every sense save poundage.
We’ve changed the qualifications up just a little bit this year. Being under the age of 25 is still mandatory (as of the coming September 15th), but instead of Calder Trophy rules, we’re just requiring players to have played less than 25 games in the NHL (essentially ignoring the Calder Trophy’s rule about playing more than six games in multiple seasons).
Graduates from this time last year include Brendan Gaunce, Troy Stecher, and Nikita Tryamkin, while Anton Rodin is simply too old now, and Jake Virtanen is not being considered solely as a result of his games played.
I get a kick out of the way some of my peers have covered Juolevi this last season. Worse still, how seriously some in this market have taken their hollow criticisms. A year ago, Juolevi was the preeminent offensive defenceman of his class; today it’s more common to hear him described as the exact opposite.
So, what changed? If you were to look at Juolevi’s boxcar metrics alone, you’d posit that nothing changed, and that’s the exact problem. Juolevi matched his offensive outputs (42 points) from a season ago with an extra game to his credit.
This is an instance where surface-level, counting stats scouting really fails the player in question, though. What actually changed was Juolevi’s role.
Instead of playing in a predominantly offensive role, as he did in his draft season, Juolevi was the Knights shut down defenceman. Knights head coach Dale Hunter called on Juolevi to play with a 17-year-old defenceman as his primary partner, kill penalties on the Knights first unit and defend leads late in games. Juolevi played the ninth-highest estimated QoC (Quality of Competition) at five-on-five in the OHL last season according to www.prospect-stats.com, and in those minutes the Knights controlled 58% of the goals scored.
That Juolevi didn’t show offensive growth in the form of increased scoring totals shouldn’t be a surprise in this context. Not in the slightest. To suggest he hasn’t grown period, though, is patently false.
Most of Juolevi’s growth just wasn’t apparent to the lay observer, which is oddly suiting of the player in question. Almost everything that makes Juolevi an exceptional defenceman and a sound bet to develop into a high-end pro is rooted in nuance.
Juolevi’s a player who knows when to apply pressure in transition. When he’s forced the chip and chase play from his opponents, he always has his head up as he goes back for the puck, checking for outlets. He can identify support before he’s even retrieved the puck and it’s off his stick before the forechecker can get within a yard of him.
It’s a truly mesmerizing feat, to watch a player snuff out an opposition zone entry attempt and transition play in the opposite direction just as quickly. I’ve seen Juolevi do this countless times, without breaking a sweat.
The way the NHL is evolving, you need defencemen like Juolevi on your team. Right now, though, the odds aren’t as high as one might hope for a fifth-overall pick even getting that far. The pGPS (Prospect Graduation Probabilities System) metric only gives Juolevi a 29.5% chance of making the NHL.
I tend to think pGPS undersells Juolevi’s chances of success. Only time will tell, though.