Vancouver Canucks: The misunderstood matter of Olli Juolevi

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LONDON, ON – APRIL 26: The London Knights trio of Matthew Tkachuk #7, Olli Juolevi #4, and Mitchell Marner #93 celebrate their 3 star selections after defeating the Erie Otters in Game Three of the OHL Western Conference Final on April 26, 2016 at Budweiser Gardens in London, Ontario, Canada. The Knights defeated the Otters 5-1 to take a 3-0 series lead. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Almost ever since his draft, Olli Juolevi’s heroics have failed to resonate with Vancouver Canucks media and fans, his storyline caught up in superficial understandings. Very soon Juolevi is expected back on the ice to start training and prove his doubters wrong next season.

WORLD Junior U20 gold medalist, CHL all-star, Memorial Cup champion, 6’3″, 200-pound, playmaking defenceman Olli Juolevi got you down?

Since Juolevi became a Canucks prospect, countless fans and media have claimed his development stagnated during that second year with the London Knights. Injuries also set him back beyond forgiveness, considering a couple tantalizing talents drafted after him who became NHL difference makers early on in their pro careers.

Fellow The Canuck Way writer Jarred Chan discussed Juolevi and these other prospects in a great article a couple of months ago, pointing out that it takes time to develop some players, yet media and thereafter fan bases are often quick to dismiss young athletes these days.

Well, Canucks fans, in my very first article as a contributor at The Canuck Way, after being plucked from the readers’ comments by site editor David Quadrelli, I’m here to raise your spirits about this curiously under-hyped prospect and shed some much-needed light on the 21-year-old’s impressive development curve. Damn, this kid deserves the hype.

Let’s go back to OJ’s draft year, 2016, after he’d just won the Memorial Cup with his Knights teammates. What people don’t seem to consider is that, while this team was stacked with an amazing set of forward talents Christian Dvorak, Mitch Marner, and Matthew Tkachuk – as I detailed further in my own fan blog back in August 2018 – the very next season all three of these CHL all-stars moved onto bigger and better things, leaving their teammates to fend for themselves the following season.

To have one such player is more than most CHL teams, but to have three 100-point players all in the same lineup, it’s no wonder they won the Cup. The 2015-16 Knights roster was a dream team.

That season the 17-year-old Juolevi scored 0.74 points-per-game in his 57-game OHL rookie campaign for the Knights, and was tied for second in playoff scoring among all defencemen.

This was the same year OJ and his Finnish mates won WJC-20 gold on a team stacked with forwards like Jesse Puljujärvi, Sebastian Aho, and Patrik Laine. Juolevi led that under-20 tourney tied for most points by a defenceman.

Yet somehow in his next season – 2016-17, his draft +1 season – everyone was declaring him a bust, because after playing another 58 games on the Knights, Juolevi again scored the very similar 0.72 ppg, what on the surface would appear to mean no progress at all.

To make matters worse in the court of public opinion, even while Juolevi was bestowed the captaincy of his 2016-17 Finnish squad, their early exit from the tourney that year tarnished the honour. But again, have a look at that roster and you’ll find it loaded with null-stars. Once more that year, OJ had no big talent to play with and slid even further out of Canucks’ communal consciousness.

The stagnation concept misinformed the whole vibe around Juolevi ever since, depressing an asset and fan base, leaving its stink on a fine young prospect.

The season after his draft, Juolevi remained with the Knights and null-stars, where the top-three-scoring forwards were Cliff Pu, J.J. Piccinich, and Robert Thomas. Yup, that’s right – Picci, Pu and Bobby Tom – under achievers accounting for 120-fewer points than the all-star trio from the year before.

Surprisingly, Juolevi showed consistency by maintaining his scoring rate, which was proof of continued improvement and more primary involvement with the play.

Following his two years in the OHL, with nothing left to learn at the junior level, the young Finnish star returned home to play pro hockey with his TPS squad in Liiga, for the first time against men, and now under the tutelage of wizened Canucks alumni and offensive-defender Sami Salo.

It didn’t sound good for Juolevi after a slow start to the season, a time when the defencekid had to acclimatize to full-grown hockey. Coach Salo certainly didn’t sugar coat anything when interviewed about his young protege’s development, playing into the fears of Stagnation Nation.

But young Olli was – and still is – a prospect, and patience… is… the… process. So give him a second… And by the time the Liiga playoffs had rolled around, OJ was the highest scoring defenceman on his team, as well as team leader in plus/minus. Against men. Nice work, kid.

Juolevi’s shown outstanding progress every single year since he was drafted. His quick release, accurate point shot, hi-IQ passes, and smooth skating have consistently translated to each new level he’s played.

D-men drafted 5th overall:
1985 Hartford: Dana Murzyn
1986 Buffalo: Shawn Anderson
1987 Pittsburgh: Chris Joseph
1991 Winnipeg: Aaron Ward
1992 NYI: Darius Kasparaitis
1996 Dallas: Richard Jackman
1997 NYI: Eric Brewer
1998 ANA: Vitaly Vishnevsky
2002 Pittsburgh: Ryan Whitney
2007 Washington: Karl Alzner
2008 Toronto: Luke Schenn
2012 Toronto: Morgan Rielly
2015 Carolina: Noah Hanifin
2016 Vancouver: Olli Juolevi
~data mined from EliteProspects.com

Flashing back to the draft table, it was apparent that Jim Benning had seen enough and found his guy. However, not every Canuck national felt the same way, which was heard when Benning announced Juolevi’s name at the podium and the crowd let out a collective gasp.

As far as defencemen go, there aren’t many significant names on the all-time No 5 draft picks list. Having a look back since 1985, gasp or no gasp, OJ could still turn out to be the most prolific of them all.

Fans and media in Vancouver were stunned as news hit home that Juolevi was theirs at No. 5 overall, especially as he was drafted ahead of his Knights linemate Tkachuk, whose power game was believed to be better suited to the soft Canucks lineup.

To further confuse the fandom, some like Sportsnet analyst Jeff Marek, expected stud defenceman Mikhail Sergachyov to be the first defenceman off the board, and with his combination of size, speed, skill and grit, he was a package that few fans could argue with.

But of course, Benning went home with neither of these tenacious teens.

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