Before the 2015-16 season began, Olli Juolevi of the London Knights was routinely ranked in the 15-20 range for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft by the majority of scouts. Bob McKenzie had him thirteenth, the third defenceman on the list. That was before he appeared in the OHL, though. Now, with half a season under his belt, interest in the young defenceman has been growing steadily.
Olli Juolevi’s Draft Stock Rising Daily
He put in a head-turning performance at the World Juniors for the hosts Finland, where he dominated on the blueline and was arguably the team’s best defenceman as they went on to win the gold medal on home ice. In Sportsnet’s post-tournament draft rankings, Juolevi had moved all the way up to seventh, from sixteenth in their own preseason rankings. That’s just one spot below Jakob Chychrun, who appeared untouchable as the top-ranked blueliner in the draft, and now is surrounded by uncertainty.
31 games into his first OHL season, Juolevi has five goals and 26 points with the Knights, which is currently good for third among rookie defencemen. He sees a lot of ice as the go-to point man on the best powerplay unit in the league. Asked about his role on that unit, he said, “I think I’m like the quarterback. I’m passing to [Christian Dvorak] and Mitch [Marner] and they’re doing their job. I just try to play the puck to open spots.”
Clearly he views himself as a pass-first player, with a role secondary to the team’s major stars. And he’s making a name for himself doing just that. He played that role very effectively at the World Juniors too, tallying nine assists to put him second among all defencemen in tournament scoring.
Juolevi is far more than just a set-up man, though; he’s making an effort to expand his repertoire of skills. On Saturday night, he showed off his rarely-used slapshot, nearly tearing a hole in the net as he put the Knights up 4-0 over the Mississauga Steelheads. His skating ability and hockey sense make him an excellent puck-moving defenceman. On Friday night, when London were reduced to five defencemen for the whole game with an ejection ten seconds in, Juolevi saw it as an opportunity, not an added burden, and his only comment was, “It’s more ice time for us, so it was fun.”
However, there were some concerns going into this season about his game in the defensive zone. He was certainly shaky at the beginning of the year, and remains prone to mistakes in his own end that are the mark of inexperience. He’s far from a liability, though. Juolevi’s hockey sense has improved in leaps over the course of this season, and he’s much more responsible, rarely out of position or caught pinching as he might have been in October. He said he’s “trying to use my stick a lot,” and he has done so, doing a good job of taking away passing lanes. Juolevi has even seen a good chunk of time on the penalty kill recently, a place he would not have been seen frequently in the early months of this year.
Standing 6’2″, Juolevi is naturally advantaged by having a long stride. However, he could probably stand to bulk up a little, since at just 180 pounds it sometimes looks too easy to knock him off the puck. Becoming stronger in the defensive end would be the best possible addition to his game at this time. Aside from that, most of the raw talent is there for Juolevi. Experience is what will bring him more success in the OHL, and he already has one of the most valuable experience a junior player can have with a gold medal.
As we approach the 2016 NHL Draft, it would not be surprising to see a debate grow around whether Jakob Chychrun or Olli Juolevi should be the first defenceman selected. Both will probably go around the same place, with Chychrun slated to fall a few spots from his preseason second-place ranking, and Juolevi certain to jump up to the top ten. Defencemen will be valuable this year, since there isn’t a terribly strong crop available. However, which of the two will be deemed most valuable will likely be debated until draft day. A lot likely depends on the success of their teams, with both London and Sarnia poised to make a deep playoff run this year.
Comments from Olli Juolevi on his World Junior experience and Friday night’s London-Saginaw game: