PENTICTON, B.C. — If Olli Juolevi handles opposing NHL forwards as well as he does the media, the 20-year-old’s first year of professional hockey in North America should be relatively easy.
The Vancouver Canucks defenseman prospect, coming off back surgery in June, was asked in his first scrum at the Young Stars Classic tournament if he’d fallen behind his 2016 NHL Draft class.
“I don’t know about that because it’s still going to be a marathon, it’s not a sprint and it’s not about who goes to the NHL first,” said Juolevi, who played in his native Finland last season after two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League. “It’s about who plays longest and has the best career and I am really excited to start my career here and do my best.”
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Juolevi was picked No. 5 by the Canucks in the 2016 NHL Draft, and defensemen selected after him have combined to play more than 350 NHL games in the past two seasons. The list includes Mikhail Sergachev (No. 9 in 2016) of the Tampa Bay Lightning (83 games), Charlie McAvoy (No. 14) of the Boston Bruins (63 games), Jakob Chychrun (No. 16) of the Arizona Coyotes (118 games). Second-round pick (No. 47) Samuel Girard played 73 games with the Colorado Avalanche, and Victor Mete, who played on a pair with Juolevi on London in the OHL and was picked in the fourth round (No. 100) in 2016, played 49 games with the Montreal Canadiens last season.
With four left-side defensemen on one-way contracts ahead of him on the Canucks depth chart, there is a good chance Juolevi starts this season with Utica in the American Hockey League.
“It really doesn’t mean much if I play 15 years in the League so I’m not worried about that,” Juolevi said. “I just want to know that I am ready and I am in a good spot and when I make it I will be a good player.”
Juolevi is confident he took steps towards that after being loaned to TPS Turku in Finland’s SM-liiga last season. He had 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 38 games last season, 19th among defensemen in points-per-game.
Juolevi pointed to his work last season with former Canucks defenseman Sami Salo, an assistant coach with Turku, and talked about things like taking the proper angles on defense as key parts of his improvement.
“When I went to Finland they were already almost 10 games played so I kind of jumped on a moving train and playing with the men,” Juolevi said. “It is a more physical game and you got to be strong on the puck and in the D-zone and Sami gave me tips for the little things so it was a good year. I am not the flashiest player and my game, you kind of need to know hockey to see those little things when I do them right.”
Trent Cull, who coaches Vancouver’s AHL affiliate in Utica and is running practices and the bench at the Young Stars Classic, can see those improvements.
“From my stand point it’s just looking from where he was last year, how has he progressed on the ice, off the ice, and it looks like Olli has done a lot of the right things,” Cull said after Juolevi went pointless in the Canucks’ 8-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets prospects Friday. “He was more engaged, confident in his play, I liked his gap and I thought his stick was really good. I think he does look better from where he was last year and that’s kind of exciting.”
Those may not be the kind of things that jump out amid the high-end skill of the Canucks forward prospects, but Juolevi believes they’re key to the long NHL career he wants and ending questions about how long it took to start.
“I am really happy with where I am at right now,” he said. “I have real positive feelings.”