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Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports

Why Olli Juolevi and Jack Rathbone will benefit from Quinn Hughes’ absence from Canucks camp

The big story around the Vancouver Canucks’ training camp is the absence of their two brightest stars.

As Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes hold out for new contracts, it’s not going to slow down the on-ice action as play is going to ramp up quickly.

The absence of Pettersson and Hughes will open the door for others to play up the lineup and shines a brighter spotlight on one of the big battles at this camp.

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Olli Juolevi and Jack Rathbone are set to battle for the final defence spot on the left side. With Hughes missing in action, we will see each of Rathbone and Juolevi thrust into a bigger role.

If Hughes was here, it’d be easy to spot who was winning the Rathbone-Juolevi battle. The leader of the battle would have been playing with Tyler Myers or Tucker Poolman and the trailing defenceman slides down with Luke Schenn on the camp’s fourth pairing.

Olli Juolevi has a lot to prove. He has more NHL games under his belt compared to Rathbone and is a cheap option due to his league minimum cap hit. His contract structure will give him every chance in the world to play NHL games this season.

As it has been throughout his entire pro career, it’s going to depend on if his body is right. From what we learned last season, it’s clear that Juolevi can play in the NHL. He had some flashes where he looked like a fine bottom-pairing defenceman.

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The tough part was that the concerns that arose in the AHL continue to show in the NHL. Ever since sustaining multiple hip and other lower-body injuries, Juolevi has very much struggled when it comes to defending the rush. To be a defensive defenceman in the NHL, he will have had to improve his skating a lot during the offseason. Juolevi has battled these injuries for years now and it has forced his development to be stretched to four or five years instead of two or three. He just needs to show much better this year while on his one-year contract. Last season’s defensive blunders need to happen much less or else the Canucks will have to give up on their 2016 fifth overall pick.

This is about as bad as it can look with Juolevi.

If he can’t defend the rush, he can’t be a regular in the NHL. It’s as simple as that.

On this current day, our evaluation of Juolevi’s biggest strength indicates his stationary defence is his best trait. When he is on the penalty kill, he is a fine defender. He does a good job when reading/disrupting passing and shooting lanes in a structured defence. He has also shown well when it comes to creating scoring chances. Juolevi was second on the Canucks’ defence core for individual expected goals for and third on the team for shots per 60 and individual scoring chances per 60.

There is a chance for Juolevi to get consistent minutes but he is going to have to outplay the defenceman who led the 2020-21 Canucks in individual expected goals for, shots per 60 and individual scoring chances per 60.

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That defenceman was Jack Rathbone.

With Hughes absent from training camp, it makes a lot of sense for Rathbone to keep Hughes’ spot warm as the two defencemen share a lot of similar offensive qualities in their games.

Rathbone’s situation at camp is one of the most interesting ones for the Canucks. Our belief is that he is the best defenceman to play on the third pairing’s left side. The big problem is the stylistic fit. With Tyler Myers likely being the 3RD, Olli Juolevi’s stay-at-home defence mindset makes better sense as Myers simply cannot be trusted defensively.

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To get the most out of Rathbone, he needs to be the primary puck-mover on a pairing and that statement can be repeated for Myers. Rathbone should be the defenceman who is engaging in offensive cycles and possessions instead of having to defend two-on-ones because his partner got trapped in the offensive zone.

As mentioned earlier, it makes a ton of sense to play Rathbone with Hamonic in Hughes’ absence. Hamonic is the type of partner who can allow Rathbone to flourish with his stretch passes and offensive zone intelligence.

As we head into camp without Hughes, here’s how we anticipate the Canucks’ defence core looks like.

LD RD
Ekman-Larsson Poolman
Rathbone Hamonic
Juolevi Myers
Hunt Schenn

I’ll be honest, it’s a tough look for the defence to trot out this group. This eight-man unit is not a good NHL group, full stop. Hughes is terribly missed and needs to have a contract before the season begins. The interesting outcome is getting both Rathbone and Juolevi with partners who are stylistically in harmony with how to get the most out of each young defenceman.

We will see what happens to the pairings, and without Hughes, we’re confident that it’s going to be a mixed bag for each of the three days at training camp with pairings being blended daily.

It was already going to be one of the big battles at camp but if the pairings we hope for are put together, it will give each of Juolevi and Rathbone an even starting line for the race to be the Canucks’ 3LD.

We will keep an eye out for this battle over the weekend as we patiently await for Hughes to sign his new contract.