I may be stationed in Toronto, but it doesn’t matter where you are in the hockey world – when Vancouver fans are distressed, we hear it. The latest comes in the form of defenseman Olli Juolevi, the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft. Yes, he was taken before Matthew Tkachuk, Charlie McAvoy and Mikhail Sergachev – but no, we can’t crucify Vancouver for the selection just yet.
Has Juolevi been disappointing since the Canucks drafted him? Yes. But we are still in the earliest stages of his career and to be fair, he has merely been underwhelming – not tragic. That state nonetheless prompted Vancouver to find him a new team for this season. Though he played the past two campaigns in the OHL with the London Knights (winning a Memorial Cup in 2016), his first season was much better than his second.
The Knights could've used Juolevi this year. Star goalie Tyler Parsons turned pro with Calgary’s AHL affiliate in Stockton, while defenseman Brandon Crawley did the same with the Rangers' organization. But Juolevi will instead play for TPS Turku back in Finland.
TPS is currently sitting second in the Liiga, Finland’s top league. Not only does Juolevi get to play against men now, but he’ll do so under the stewardship of assistant coach Sami Salo, who happens to be one of the better defensemen in Vancouver Canucks history. Diminutive and dynamic winger Petrus Palmu, another Canucks prospect, also plays for the team.
The key will be for Juolevi to contribute at both ends of the ice for TPS, while also getting decent minutes. Looking at Turku’s roster, this shouldn’t be a problem. Currently, the top defenders on the team are former NHLer Henrik Tallinder and Finnish vet Ilkka Heikkinen. They are the only two players on the squad averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per game. But there is also some nice internal competition from another young kid in Rangers pick Tarmo Reunanen – so Juolevi will have to earn his time.
What should be a reasonable expectation for success in Turku? I’d look at fellow teen blueliner Miro Heiskanen, who went third overall to Dallas in 2017. Heiskanen played 19 minutes for HIFK Helsinki last year, notching 10 points in 37 games and upping his game slightly higher in the playoffs. Now, that was a great campaign for a 17-year-old, so let’s hope for a little more from Juolevi, who is already 19.
But it’s worth noting that one of the first signs of trouble for Juolevi last year came at the world juniors, where he was outplayed by Heiskanen on a disappointing Finnish team that had to play in the relegation round. Maybe Heiskanen is just better, maybe he just hit his stride quicker.
Either way, the two players will be crucial to Finland’s efforts at the world juniors this season. The Suomi blueline actually looks stacked, with Juolevi and Heiskanen leading a group that also includes the rapidly ascending Juuso Valimaki (Calgary draft pick), plus Robin Salo (New York Islanders), Urho Vaakanainen (Boston) and Henri Jokiharju (Chicago). With Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville) and Kristian Vesalainen (Winnipeg) up front and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen (Buffalo) in net, this team should be a contender. But we’ve seen the Finns fall from hype in the past (and rise when they’re underdogs), so it’s tough to say.
Either way, this is a huge year for Juolevi. He seems to have all the tools you’d want in a modern NHL defenseman – he’s mobile, plays both ways and has size at 6-foot-2 – but the parts haven’t come together since his fantastic rookie season in London. If he turns things around in TPS, we’ll all feel silly for questioning his upside in the first place. If not? Well, Vancouver fans aren’t going to be quiet about it.