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The Olli Juolevi files part 1: The Negatives

Hundreds of articles have been written about the Canucks’ fifth overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft, defenceman Olli Juolevi.

Every Canucks fan seems to have an opinion on Juolevi and they range from him being a future top-pairing defenceman to him being the biggest Canucks draft bust in recent memory.

As a student in quarantine, I’ve had a lot of spare time in the past few months so why not invest a ridiculous amount of hours watching Olli Juolevi.

I thought it would be fun. Spoiler alert, it was not fun.

This will be a two-part series looking at the negatives and positives of Juolevi’s game. We will begin with the negatives because it’s easier to rip the Band-Aid off quickly instead of peeling it off slowly.

The first thing that is often mentioned about the 22-year-old defenceman has been his inability to stay healthy.

Through two AHL seasons, Juolevi has played in 63 of a possible 145 games. That’s a meagre 43.4%.

His three biggest injury battles have been with his back, right knee and hip.

This season didn’t begin with Olli Juolevi being 100% healthy. On the first day of training camp, Juolevi struggled with many drills. Keeping up with NHL competition proved to be troublesome that weekend. He was clearly behind his teammates after day one and it showed at the end of practice during stretching.

He was unable to participate in certain lower body stretches with the group that day.

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It was clear that his surgically repaired right knee was not ready for this season.

The beginning of the season was very tough on the young Juolevi. There were countless instances of him appearing hesitant to push off his right leg. Many times around the net a forward will come in and he needed to rotate his hips to push with the left leg instead of simply pushing off with the right side to gain positioning.

This resulted in him getting beaten quite a bit at the beginning of the year.

Including game one against the Binghamton Devils.

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Here is game three of the season where Syracuse Crunch player Cory Conacher blows by a flat-footed Juolevi to score a shorthanded goal.

Later in this period Juolevi was once again in quicksand against Conacher but takes an interference penalty instead.

One of the things you need to see from a defenceman in the AHL is the capability to shut down and dominate their competition in the defensive zone. Without showing that skill against weaker competition, it is tough to imagine what some of these plays would look like against the best forwards in the world at the NHL level.

Looking at the defence corps in Utica, it’s not hard to argue that Juolevi is behind players like Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield, Ashton Sautner and Brogan Rafferty when it comes to being ready to defend against NHL competition. The positive spin on that is that he is also the youngest of that group.

With injuries being at the forefront of Juolevi’s problems, his defensive game was not able to improve throughout the 2018-19 season and his beginning of the 2019-20 season kept that trend as it took almost one month break from November 11th to December 6th before we could see a healthier Juolevi play for the Comets.

When he returned to the lineup in December his knee was noticeably stronger. He was not worried about pushing off of that side and looked to be skating much more fluidly.

The skating did improve throughout the season but the one big knock against him has to be how he defends odd-man rushes. He is naturally better at defending on the left side on a 3-on-2 but when put into a 2-on-1 or 1-on-1 situation it seems like the high hockey IQ that so many people talk about is thrown by the wayside and he makes poor decisions.

Here’s a 3-on-2 where Juolevi plays panic defence and gets walked. It happens with him on his strong side as well.

Another spot where Juolevi seems to struggle is with quick decisions due to pressure from the opposition and battles around the net.

He had a lot of giveaways behind the net due to the opposition being stronger on the puck and being able to control his stick in board battles. It’s like the opposite of what we see with Tanner Pearson on the boards. Pearson is able to make his defensive stick look like it’s made of pure steel as Juolevi’s sometimes looks like a wet noodle.

We will see more of it in the second part of this series, but Juolevi requires the extra second to collect himself before be makes a good pass. The AHL gives defencemen that extra second that is not there at the next level. This is one of the reasons why it takes defencemen more time to develop. They either have it immediately after getting drafted or need to polish up their quick decision making at the AHL level before jumping into the best league in the world.

They need to be able to deal with AHL forecheckers with ease before they should be considered for a call-up to the show. We see this with defencemen like Rafferty and Sautner but Juolevi has to settle the puck down and read the ice before making a good pass. Occasionally he will trust his quick read and make a good pass but he is often just firing the puck across the zone to his partner or throwing the puck into open ice in the neutral zone.

It happens so often and I won’t include a bunch of clips, but this is just a small example of it.

When Juolevi is given a few seconds to process the situation he can make plays out of the defensive zone. Here’s an example as he draws the defensive to one side of the ice and then crosses it with an accurate pass to send in a teammate with speed. There will be more of this in the second part of this series.

The problem is that at the NHL level you are under pressure more often than not. This is why the AHL is the right spot for defencemen to develop for the NHL. They get used to seeing lanes but are given more straightforward decisions without the added NHL pressure.

At his young age, it’s nearly impossible to make a full stop on the idea that Olli Juolevi will be an NHL player. The reason behind that is because his body has been failing him in the early stages of his professional career. A lot of these clips show that he simply couldn’t keep up with the pace of play at the AHL level.

I know that sounds bad but I think of it like cooking.

If you are missing one necessary ingredient, it’s tough to complete the recipe. Juolevi has NHL potential but the question continues to be if he will be able to add the missing parts to round himself out as a top prospect. Right now it just seems like he’s chicken cordon bleu while missing the chicken.

I love swiss cheese and ham but it’s not enough for a full meal.

Most of these negatives can be traced back to one problem. He can’t stay healthy. Juolevi is now four years out from his draft year and is yet to play in an NHL game. He shows flashes of excellence as we will see in part two of this series, but needs to stay healthy so that his progression is not halted. He needs to stay healthy and prove that he is a high-level defenceman in the AHL before the big club will even get a taste of what he can bring to the team.

I’ve not given up on Juolevi and neither should you. We should just alter expectations.

From what I’ve heard around the Comets team, Juolevi wants to prove that he is an NHL player more than anyone. His body has just let him down time and time again. Juolevi is quiet in the room but loves to crack on with teammates when the jokes start to flow. He’s a workhorse in the gym and we should remember that he is a pretty big guy at 6’2″, 185lbs. He doesn’t shy away from contact and that will be discussed in part two as well, he is quietly physical as so many Finnish players are.

This season he improved as the year went on and we will see more of that in part two of this series. Juolevi needs to get on those Saskatchewan workouts with Kole Lind and hope that he is able to have a bounce-back season of his own in 2020-21.

Ripping off the Band-Aid wasn’t that bad, was it?

In part two we will look at the positives steps that Juolevi took this season. See you tomorrow.