Travis Green is vitally aware of the many questions attached to Olli Juolevi, but after watching the much-discussed defenceman at the Young Stars, the Canucks’ head coach chose an interesting word to describe the improvement he’s seen.
“It’s his assertiveness,” Green said.
Assertiveness. Explain, please.
“I could hear from up top yelling for pucks and you could see he wanted the puck,” Green said. “I haven’t seen that from him in the past. He was decisive and he played harder. Those are all good signs for me.”
And, potentially, a good sign for the Canucks.
Juolevi — all together now, the fifth overall pick of the 2016 draft — arrives this season as a great unknown for the Canucks and their future. At this stage, he should be in the process of establishing himself as a fixture on the team’s blue line and a core part of the rebuilding template. But as you’re doubtlessly aware, his development hasn’t been, er, an uninterrupted ascending arc.
He will forever be defined by his marquee draft status and, at this point of his career, he suffers in comparison to players who were taken behind him.
But, whatever else he is, Juolevi is still only 20, he’s coming off a positive season in Turku with old friend Sami Salo and he still projects as a piece of the puzzle
How big a piece will be determined over the next couple of years but, when asked if he should be further ahead in his career, Juolevi gave an answer the Canucks will love to hear.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “It’s not about who gets to the NHL fastest. It’s about who plays longest and who has the best career. I’m really excited to start my NHL career now.”
Even if that means starting it in Utica.
Joulevi, typically, arrived in Penticton amid a fresh intrigue about his future. In June, he underwent a discectomy to repair a herniated disc in his back, a procedure that sounds ominous but is generally regarded as minimally invasive.
Still, that operation cost him at least a month of training which is a problem for a player who’s struggled with strength and conditioning in the past. Both Juolevi and the Canucks now say he still put in a full shift in the gym this summer and he certainly looks match fit at the outset of this season.
The assertiveness training? That helps, too.
“It’s not the perfect situation when you have something like that but, at the same time, you can work on other things,” Juolevi said. “I feel really good right now.”
“Obviously we want to improve the strength and conditioning side,” said Canucks director of player development Ryan Johnson. “But, like I told Olli, with the amount of hockey he’s played, rest doesn’t hurt him. He still got in some good work and it’s not going to hold him back. His progression is right where we thought it would be.”
Ah, yes. His progression. Last season, Juolevi opted out of a third straight campaign with the OHL’s London Knight and, instead, returned to his homeland to play for TPS. Salo, the former Canucks’ defenceman and a respected figure in Finnish hockey, is an assistant there and served as a mentor for the young defenceman.
By all accounts, Juolevi started the season slowly but improved steadily under Salo’s watch. By the post-season he was a top-pairing blueliner.
“He was awesome,” Juolevi said of Salo. “He knows what you need to do. We went through a lot of defensive stuff and he gave me a lot of good things. I learned a lot from him.”
“It was a huge benefit for Olli to be around men every day,” said Johnson. “I think it opened his eyes to see what it takes to be a pro.”
Now Juolevi sets his sights on being an NHLer. With eight defencemen already under contract to the Canucks, the prospect of him starting the season in Vancouver seems, at best, remote. The more likely scenario is he continues to improve in Utica, plays some NHL games this season and is ready next season when the clutter in front of him clears.
He’ll still be 21 at that point, which is consistent with the development pattern for most defencemen. But, whatever happens next, he remains a critical part of the rebuild.
It’s doubtful he’ll develop into that dynamic, No. 1 blueliner he was thought to be in his draft year, but if he evolves into a legitimate top-four D-man — former Canuck Dan Hamhuis is the comparison you hear most often — he’ll be worth the wait. The faithful will continue to fixate on Matthew Tkachuk, Mikhail Sergachev and Charlie McAvoy, players who were taken behind Juolevi but who are further along in their development.
But Juolevi’s focus is elsewhere.
“I don’t really read that much in the media,” Juolevi said. “Obviously there are critics, but it’s all about yourself. You need to know where you are and how you can get better.
“I think I learned a lot the last year. I really think I’m ready right now.”
And he plans to be here for the long haul.