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Photo Credit: © Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Olli Juolevi made mistakes this season but his first year in the NHL should be looked at as a success: 2021 Year in Review

Through a season full of disappointments, Olli Juolevi has shown that he is an NHL player if he can stay healthy.

It’s been a season to forget for the most part but one positive to take out of the season is that 23-year-old defenceman Olli Juolevi is at a level where he can play at an NHL level.

He hasn’t been knocking down the door to demand 18 minutes a game. He hasn’t played many shorthanded minutes and he hasn’t had a sniff on the power play. He’s even played against the easiest competition in a sheltered role.

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The thing is, he’s done a good job in the role bestowed upon him.

In his 273 minutes of even-strength play this season, he has been on the ice for nine goals against. Juolevi ranks best on the Canucks with a team-low 1.98 goals-against per 60 minutes. He also possesses a positive control of the goal share as he’s been on the ice for 11 goals scored.

Stats provided by NaturalStatTrick

The big success in Juolevi’s development is that he has been able to stay healthy all season long. He has proved that his game is NHL ready and though he didn’t overachieve this season, he has accomplished another step in reaching his potential.

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He has proven that he can play at the NHL level.

There’s still work to do for him to become a top-four defenceman and right now, the most you can rely on him in one game seems to be 15 minutes. In only four of his 22 games has he been asked to play more than 15 minutes of ice time. His quality of competition has been very easy with much of his time coming against bottom-six lines.

For example, Joulevi has played half of his games against two non-playoff teams in the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames.

He spent a lot of time away from each of those team’s top lines. In the 150 minutes of 5-on-5 against the Sens and Flames, Joulevi spent 21.72% of his ice time against the opposition’s top line. So yes, he was being protected to a certain degree but it’s not like he was sheltered for 90% of his ice time. In those 32 minutes of ice time against the Matthew Tkachuk or Josh Norris lines, Juolevi was on the ice for one goal scored and one goal against.

He played fine. Nothing special, nothing horrible.

That’s all you need from a bottom-pairing defenceman.

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There is reason to believe that Juolevi has still not reached his potential. He just turned 23 this season and he has been able to stay healthy throughout a full shortened season in the NHL. He only played in 22 games but this is the highest level and there’s no demand for him to be one of the best players on this team — he just needs to be able to play a part in the grand scheme of things. You’d love to have game-breakers on each of your defence pairings but that simply is not going to happen anytime soon without some different thinking when it comes to the roster construction of this team.

For now, Joulevi is a piece of the Canucks’ defence core, and what he has done this season is a step in the right direction. It’s not a triple-jump like we have seen from a prospect like Nils Höglander or to a lesser degree, a long jump like Jack Rathbone. It’s just a step for Juolevi, and that’s fine. Not every prospect is going to come in and blow the socks off of the fanbase.

Yes, Juolevi’s draft spot makes you wish he could be a top-four defenceman. He is just not likely to be that right now.

Much of Juolevi’s game still needs improvement. He needs to be able to defend the rush better, as many believed he would struggle with at this level. Him being healthy has brought improvement to his skating. There’s still work to do but his skating and defending haven’t looked as bad as they last season in the AHL.

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There were times last season where it looked like his skates were covered in cement, and it made you question if he would ever be able to play at the NHL level. This season, he has shown that he did improve over the offseason and though there’s still work to do, he has progressed.

This is from my “negatives” article on Olli Juolevi back in June of 2020.

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.

He missed a good portion of time in each of his two AHL seasons and with that, he has only played in 80 hockey games since the 2018-19 season. Compare that to another Canucks prospect like Jett Woo, who has played in 156 games since the 2018-19 season or Vasily Podkolzin, who has played in 234 games since the 2018-19 season.

Juolevi simply has not had enough time to develop his game. His body has let him down and he still has so much development to go before his final product is ready to be seen.

This past Friday, Jim Benning was on Donnie and Dhali and he mentioned how hard COVID-19 was on Juolevi.

“He was one of our guys who got really sick,” said Benning. “He lost a bunch of weight there in those three weeks. I think he lost 10-15 pounds.”

Just another health setback for the guy with the worst luck in the organization.

That being said, there needs to be significant imporvement in his defence of the rush. He has improved with his angles of defending but the skating doesn’t look like it’s really improved that much. He needs to improve his skating to be a potential top-four defenceman or even the Troy Stecher type of defenceman who plays top-four minutes if necessary but has proven success in a bottom-pairing role.

The defence core is full of offensive-minded defencemen. Juolevi has a chance to be an important piece of this team moving forward if he can lean into the defensive defenceman role. This team is going to need penalty killers and that’s a place where I always thought Juolevi looked best when in the AHL. His skating doesn’t get exposed and he is able to set up defensively to disrupt passing and shooting lanes. His best trait is his in-zone defending and it comes from a high hockey IQ.

Getting time on the penalty kill is another big step in development for Juolevi and it’s too bad we didn’t get to see him get time there this season. Travis Green has wanted Juolevi to be more assertive this season and has liked his play at times when his confidence is high.

Even with him only getting into 20-something games, it is a step in the right direction for a player whose development has been off the rails right from the moment he was drafted back in 2016.

“I think there have been some frustrating times for Olli,” said Green. “I know that he’s talked openly about that with the media at times. It’s been a fairly solid rookie season and it’s a harder position to break in as a rookie. I think it’s been a good learning experience for him. I think he’s going to be able to take what he’s learned this season and work over the summer to improve to come back even better.”

He has had protection with his line matches this season and Green hopes that isn’t the case as he progresses.

“I project him to be a guy that can play against any line in the league,” said Green. “He’s a smart defenceman, he’s big, he moves the puck well, but he’s got things that he’s going to have to work on like a lot of young D to improve into that role.”

Not all prospects are going to hit their ceiling and Juolevi appears to be more around the floor of his potential rather than the ceiling. Having a cheap bottom pairing defenceman who can bring a bit of offence will be a big help for the Canucks in their next few years of hopeful contention towards the playoffs.

There’s still room to grow for him and he has learned a ton this season about what he needs to improve on to keep a job in the NHL.

We all want to see Juolevi succeed and this season, he didn’t fail. He made mistakes and will hopefully learn from them, but overall it was a step in the right direction.

It’s still too early to write off the 23-year-old defenceman. He took a big step this season.

He will take more steps in the future.