Many Vancouver Canucks fans grew impatient waiting for Olli Juolevi to finally make his NHL debut.
It makes sense, given the fact that multiple players selected before and after Juolevi in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft have already got their feet wet at the NHL level.
The word “bust” has been thrown around a lot when it comes to Juolevi, and while we could sit here and debate what that word really means, let us instead examine exactly what the Canucks saw from Juolevi during the return to play, and what it could mean for him going forward.
At training camp, I was sure to keep a watchful eye on Juolevi every time he was on the ice. Whether that was battling Quinn Hughes in one-on-one drills or in the scrimmages, there were some important things to look out for with Juolevi. Namely his skating, which has been hampered by injuries at numerous points throughout his career.
At the AHL level with the Utica Comets, Juolevi showed lots of promise and lots of upside in many facets of his game. His breakout passes, his defensive awareness, and his shot blocking ability were all things to get excited about.
That being said, eyebrows were raised at his lack of footspeed when it came to catching up to an opposing forward or being the first to a loose puck. At times it looked as though Juolevi was in quicksand, and that simply wasn’t going to fly at the NHL level.
Thankfully, Juolevi’s skating looked just fine at training camp. He was quick, good on his edges, and was making smart decisions both with and without the puck. It makes you wonder if Juolevi’s injury was still bugging him at times when he was playing in Utica, given how much better his skating looked at camp.
He certainly stood out most among his fellow black aces through training camp, and most of all, he appeared to be completely healthy.
In scrimmages, Juolevi’s most common defence partner was Troy Stecher. Toward the end of camp, Stecher said that he thought Juolevi looked “a lot better” than the last time he saw him play, at the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton a few years back.
Stecher is one of the most vocal Canucks defencemen when he’s on the ice. Whether it’s hollering for a pass, or communicating with his d-partner about who to cover, you can almost always hear when Stecher is on the ice, especially in an empty rink.
This seems to be something Juolevi picked up on quickly. While you may expect a defenceman who still hasn’t played an NHL game be relatively closed off and reserved, Juolevi was playing with the kind of confidence that give you the impression that he thinks he belongs in the NHL.
On a side note, there was a moment in a scrimmage when Jake Virtanen was frustrated after a net-front battle with Juolevi and when Juolevi was skating up the ice following the play, Virtanen trailed behind, hooking his wrist. Juolevi spun around and said something to Jake before the two skated away from one another. It was a small thing, but it was something that further showed that Juolevi felt like he belonged and wasn’t going to back down from any challenge.
“He’s slowly getting better everyday I think,” said head coach Travis Green. “He’s surprised me in a good way. I think he’s been pretty solid. We’re trying to work with him a bit more on the side than other guys. Trying to get him to push himself to get better everyday.”
Then it was Green’s turn to surprise everybody.
Juolevi played in one playoff game, and Canucks Twitter went into a frenzy. He slotted in on the third pairing in place of Oscar Fantenberg against the Minnesota Wild, and the contest marked the first NHL game for the Canucks’ 2016 first-round pick.
It’s been a long time coming for Juolevi, and it was great to see him get in for a game, even if it was in an extremely sheltered third pairing role. I broke down Juolevi’s performance in his debut shift by shift (with video) back when it happened, and you can read that here for an exhaustive analysis of a whole lot of nothing.
Juolevi moved the puck well, and showed off his high IQ on a few occasions, but there wasn’t anything that stood out in particular in his one game. That being said, he hasn’t given the coaching staff any reason to believe he can’t be a legitimate threat to be given the third pairing role next season.
At the same time, Jack Rathbone will also be looking to show he deserves that spot when training camp kicks off in a few months for the 2020-21 season.
Juolevi brings a combination of high defensive IQ, shot-blocking, penalty killing, and puck-moving ability that the Canucks would love to add to their third pairing.
The question will be if the coaching staff thinks he or Rathbone offers more value in that role once training camp is all said and done.