It’s been over two years since Jim Benning announced Olli Juolevi as the Vancouver Canucks first round pick, fifth overall at the 2016 entry draft. If you’re having a hard time gauging his development, that’s understandable as he’s only played a handful of games in North America since the completion of the London Knights season in 2017. The following season, the Canucks opted to loan Juolevi to TPS in Finland where he could further develop under the watchful eye of former Canuck, Sami Salo.
Loaning the young defender to TPS, Finland appears to have been the best decision for Juolevi’s development as he’s now quickly adapting during his first season of professional hockey in Utica.
I’ve compiled data and video on Juolevi during his dominating performance at last year’s World Junior Tournament, where he outplayed fellow Finnish first round picks Jusso Valimaki, Miro Heiskanen and Urho Vaakenainen, all who have played NHL games this season for their respected clubs. I’ve done the same during his first 8 of 10 games with Utica, where Juolevi is showing signs that he may be ready for an audition with the Canucks as early as this season.
There are plenty of positives you see while watching Juolevi play, including his poise, vision, skating ability. These attributes are what make him an effective three-zone defender as we’ll observe in my first clips. They focus on the many ways Juolevi can move the puck out of the defensive zone and put his team in a prime position to create offense through the neutral zone.
Following the face-off victory, Juolevi picks up the puck on his backhand and fakes banking the puck off the boards which draws in the F1. This creates a passing lane for a hard stretch pass to Jonathan Dahlen for the controlled exit which leads to the controlled entry. An efficient dissection of a passive fore-check
Here’s a fine display of the poise and vision of the 20-year old blue-liner. With pressure on his left and right, one quick backhand pass towards the face-off dot hits Adam Gaudette in stride for the controlled exit – made all too easy because of an excellent read by Juolevi. In less than a second, Juolevi turns a tough situation on his backhand behind his goal-line into an offensive opportunity off the rush for the Comets.
I’ve tracked thousands of zone exits over the past few years, and this chip-shot over the heads of two fore-checkers is one of my favourites. This play personifies Juolevi’s blink-or-you’ll-miss-it-type plays that he makes consistently.
This play oozes shades of Chris Tanev – he draws in a fore-checker which creates space and options for his defensive partner.
At the beginning of the season, I was concerned about Juolevi’s ability to skate himself out of trouble in the defensive zone. I admit, the thought is still there, but the worry is slowly fading.
So now we have a good idea why Juolevi has been among the leaders of his respected teams in terms of controlled exit rates.
The charts below display Juolevi’s ability to move the puck efficiently.
As you can see, Juolevi currently sits third on the Comets with a controlled exit rate of 42.28%. This may seem underwhelming at first glance but keep in mind, this rate would be good enough to lead the Canucks. Furthermore, Chatfield is having a sensational start to the season in terms of moving the puck. Brisebois is a smaller sample and will likely regress. In my viewings, my observations don’t scream puck-moving defenceman as a near 50% rate would suggest.
In terms of puck-moving with Juolevi, there’s still room for improvement but when considering he’s only 10 games into his professional hockey career, I’m encouraged with his performance. As he continues to adjust to the timing and style of the AHL, his rate should continue to climb and remain a strength of his game.
Now we’ll transition into another strength of Juolevi’s game, his offensive contributions. His six points place him in the top five among rookie defenders in the AHL. Juolevi is currently doing his best offensive work on the power-play, where he’s produced five of his six points thus far. As the Point-Man/Quarterback on Utica’s first unit, he gets the most touches on the man advantage and it’s up to him to orchestrate scoring chances for the leagues seventh-ranked power-play.
Juolevi has been consistent with the man advantage, averaging nearly five primary shot contributions per game on the top unit. He’s also shown he can dominate on the man advantage, maxing out at 11 primary shot contributions in a single game.
When Juolevi is on top of his game, he’s creating time and space for his teammates in the offensive zone using his deception, vision, and play-making abilities. Additionally, his shot is a weapon which keeps penalty killing units honest.
Here’s a look at some of his work on the man advantage – one of many one-timers Juolevi has set up on the power-play for Reid Boucher.
Zero panic in his game on the power-play! 10 games in and he’s got ice in his veins, I love the poise displayed before delivering this pass. The result leaves Reid Boucher with all the time and space he needs. Also, take a look at the positioning of his feet in these first two clips, they’re actually outside the zone which literally stretches out the offensive zone, creating additional space for passing lanes. When people mention his on-ice IQ, this is one of the things they’re referring to.
Stating that Juolevi is capable of setting up one-timers in an understatement, he puts the puck on a tee for some easy batting practice.
With two heavy hitters inverted in Vancouver, I eagerly anticipate Juolevi’s debut on the top unit.
Juolevi dismantles the diamond penalty-killing formation. A quick pass provided Boucher all the time and space to walk in and pick a corner.
Juolevi freezes the triangle- formation, feathers the puck to his right and bang! This dish was Juolevi’s first career AHL assist.
Here’s a nice stretch pass at even strength from Juolevi who slices the neutral zone trap in two while creating a controlled entry and shooting opportunity for his teammate.
It’s clear Juolevi is capable of contributing offensively with the man advantage. His performance so far, albeit a small sample size, has convinced me that Juolevi is currently the best option in the organization to quarterback the first power-play unit of the Canucks. Juolevi is mobile, creative, and has vision in the offensive zone, all traits I’m not sure you can say are still apart of the aging Alex Edler’s game.
This isn’t a knock on Edler, it’s more a compliment to Juolevi and what he brings in his offensive tool-box.
At even strength, Juolevi has contributed 33 primary shot contributions, which is enough to lead the team among defenders. This is enough that I’m not concerned about his ability to produce offensively. Juolevi knows how to read the offensive zone and where to be to support his forwards. He has a knack for getting the shot through traffic which provides plenty of opportunities for deflections.
Here’s another chart providing evidence that being involved offensively at even strength is nothing new to Juolevi, who finished the 2017-18 WJC with four points in five games.
So, Juolevi is 10 games into his AHL career and is showing he can move the puck effectively. He’s contributing offensively and is a developing power-play specialist. Why isn’t he getting an audition in the NHL while the Canucks are banged up on the blue-line?
In short, Juolevi has plenty to work on the defensive side of the puck. it’s the defensive breakdowns in his side of the rink, and the misreads without the puck which are causing Juolevi all kinds of problems defensively at even strength.
Juolevi is a bright hockey mind, I’m sure this read was a one and done learning opportunity in the video room.
However, there are some positive signs in Juolevi’s defensive game which he can build upon: he’s breaking up 20% of rushes against him when targeted. Additionally, he’s limiting controlled entries against to a rate of under 34%, which is good enough for the team lead as we can see in the chart below.
Juolevi is still learning the North American game which includes new angles, routes, and reads to the puck – all at a speed which is faster than he’s seen before. I’ve heard plans which include Juolevi getting the call up sometime in December or January following a two-month stint of getting his feet wet in the AHL. This is a time-frame I don’t agree with for multiple reasons:
Primarily, he’s currently in the best situation when considering his development as a player. He’s on the top pairing in Utica with Jalen Chatfield, who is exactly the type of partner Juolevi needs to compliment his playing style. Juolevi needs a right-handed partner who is a plus skater, capable of making aggressive reads in the neutral zone and becoming a passing option in the defensive zone. This is exactly what Chatfield does as he himself is becoming an option for the Canucks when he’s back to full health, but that’s a different story.
Additionally, Juolevi is getting top power-play and penalty-killing experience in Utica. This is resulting in over 20 minutes per game and is critical for his development. Hypothetically, if you were to call up Juolevi today, I can’t envision a realistic situation where he’d be deployed for more than 12 minutes per game. If Green doesn’t trust Hutton or Pouliot, there’s no way he’ll trust Juolevi at even strength.
If it were up to me, I’d let Juolevi stew in Utica for the duration for the 2018/19 season, with a door open for a brief audition on the big club at the tail end of the season (if he exceeds expectations). Remain patient with Juolevi’s development, let him become a pillar of strength with the Comets by the end of the season. With an injury free off-season devoted to nutrition and training, he’ll be ready to challenge for a regular spot in the Canucks lineup.