In what turned out to be his final trade as the General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks, Jim Benning sent former top prospect Olli Juolevi to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Noah Juulsen and Juho Lammikko. Though we have yet to see a full season of Lammikko and Juulsen, and Juolevi’s growth is impossible to predict, there is no doubt the Canucks are already witnessing an impressive return from the deal.
When the Canucks selected the 6-foot-2 left-handed defenseman with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NHL entry draft, fans were understandably excited, though some were not happy that the Canucks passed on Matthew Tkachuk. Juolevi was an OHL, and Memorial Cup champion in his draft year, and came into the organization as the highest drafted player selected by Vancouver since Daniel Sedin in 1999.
Juolevi was highly touted by scouts who saw a good-sized, well-rounded player with strong skating mechanics and ice in his veins. He played 18 games for Finland at the World Junior Championships over three years, putting up 15 points, and before he made the jump to pro, he had 84 points in 115 career OHL games.
After a promising first year of pro in Finland, Juolevi joined the Utica Comets for the 2018-19 season, and his development setbacks began. After impressing with 13 points in his first 18 AHL games, the 20-year-old was sidelined for the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
Despite facing additional injury trouble the following season, Juolevi suited up for 45 games in Utica and appeared to be on his way to becoming an impactful defender for the Canucks. He made his NHL debut in the bubble playoffs for Vancouver, playing just one game but practicing with the team throughout their run to the second-round.
Most fans know the rest. Juolevi was unable to make a difference in his few opportunities with the Canucks last season. Between the press box and further maintenance, Juolevi played just 23 games, putting up three points.
Coming into this season, it was clear from reports coming out of training camp that the now 23-year-old had again not made the desired developmental jumps and would be on the outside looking in once more.
In the October 10 trade with Florida, Benning knew he wasn’t going to recoup the value of the fifth overall pick used on the defenceman, but he did see potential for a profitable deal. Benning acquired much needed depth in the trade, with Lammikko and Juulsen now outperforming their previous assessment.
Lammiko, a former third-round pick of the Panthers back in 2014, immediately addressed a lack of depth down the middle for the Canucks. The Finnish Center came in having played 84 NHL games over two seasons, with some time overseas sprinkled in there. I’m not sure anyone knew how large a role Lammikko would play at the time of his arrival.
With Brandon Sutter still sidelined due to the long-term effects of COVID-19 (Bruce Boudreau said he isn’t expecting Sutter to be back this season.) and the underwhelming play of Jason Dickinson, Lammikko’s play time has climbed steadily along with his responsibility. He has been scratched just five games this season, all of them coming under Travis Green. Bruce Boudreau immediately fell in love with the chemistry of the Tyler Motte, Lammikko and Matthew Highmore line, and has at times seen them as a third line this season.
Regardless, the addition of Lammikko has given the Canucks an incredibly hardworking and consistent fourth-line center. Though his contract is up at the end of this season, he will likely not cost much to keep around (as he makes just $750,000 against the cap), and would be a great value player to retain.
The other player involved in the trade was Juulsen. A former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens just one season before Juolevi, the Surrey born defenceman was unable to develop into a consistent NHLer and ended up in Florida via waivers in early 2021.
He has only played seven games this season, but Juulsen has looked like a reliable bottom pair defender in each appearance. Paired with Brad Hunt, he stepped up on multiple occasions when the Canucks required him to play top minutes. The rest of his season has been spent in Abbotsford with the baby Canucks, where it is clear his overall game is too advanced for the unpredictability and lack of structure that is the AHL.
At just 24 years old, I feel Juulsen still has the potential to become an everyday NHL defenceman. He has shown flashes over the years but has never stuck, and though Vancouver has yet to give him a real shot, he is a valuable piece to the organization heading into the trade deadline as he can easily fill any immediate holes created by Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin.
In Florida, Juolevi’s injury troubles have continued as he has been on the IR since January. He has played just 12 games this season between the NHL and AHL, registering one assist. In the end, perhaps the consistent burden of injuries will be the story of his development, but only time will tell.
Though no “winners” and “losers” can be declared from this trade until Juolevi’s growth is revealed, it can be said that the pieces the Canucks received are already contributing to the team far more than what was expected. I can’t help but be disappointed that we never got to see Juolevi in Abbotsford, as I feel he would have benefited remarkably from the close proximity of the team, as well as the promised development focused future of the Canucks organization.
For now, all we can do is wish him the best and continue to watch as the results of Benning’s final trade, as Lammikko and Juulsen continue to make an impact on the ice.