Olli Juolevi came into the season flying under the radar.
Not that he wasn’t known. He was definitely a player of interest. London was bringing him as a draft-eligible import and recent history would show the Knights don’t miss the mark with their Euros. And Juolevi had impressed NHL scouts with his play in underage European tournaments, though they also knew he had knee surgery that cut his season short. That by itself made him seem like something less than a sure thing.
Those who had seen Juolevi before he was in London figured he had a shot to be in the top half of the first round and the most enthusiastic gave him a shot of slipping into the top 10.
Still, back in the fall, the consensus among NHL scouts held that the first defenceman chosen at the 2016 NHL draft would be Jakob Chychrun of the Sarnia Sting. Chychrun had the pedigree (father Jeff, a journeyman with over 200 NHL games). Chychrun had the size (listed at six-foot-two and 214 pounds). Chychrun had the hype (first pick overall in the 2014 OHL draft). The question was just whether Chychrun was going to be Aaron Ekblad or something less of an impact player stepping out of the OHL and into the NHL at age 18.
Just a month or two into the season it was hard to find a scout working the OHL who didn’t like Juolevi over Chychrun. In fact the draft-eligible defenceman who’s made a run at Juolevi is another European OHLer, Mikhail Sergachev of the Windsor Spitfires.
And by the time the world junior championship ended, Juolevi had solidified his position. Not only had his Finnish team won the gold but Juolevi played the most minutes on the champions’ blueline. A lot of elite NHL defencemen, Ekblad among them, can’t make a claim to have had such an equivalent impact with a gold-medal winner at the under-20s.
Said one veteran scout who works the OHL: “You have to remember that he’s not just 17, but also take into account that he doesn’t turn 18 until May. It’s a 19-year-old tournament with a lot of bigger, more physically mature kids. Seventeen-year-olds, even top kids, should get eaten alive. And he was great for them … their most reliable [defenceman.].”
If scouts were surprised by Juolevi’s emergence, they can take some consolation in the fact the prospect himself didn’t quite see it coming. “I hoped to play well in London and I hoped be on the Finnish team, but coming off the surgery, six months out, so I wasn’t sure what this season would look like,” he says. “When I came to camp in London I wasn’t 100 per cent and I was confident but by the time games came I felt I was. I knew there was still going to be a transition. It was a long time since I had played any games at all, seven months. I was realistic. Of course it takes some time. You have to concentrate every practice, every moment. Right now I’m pretty happy with my game.”
NHL scouts say Juolevi’s greatest asset is his hockey sense—his ability to see the ice and make first passes. That IQ comes across when he breaks down his adjustment to play in the OHL and his play at the world juniors.
“I’m a pretty good skater so the big rink [in Europe] was a good thing for me growing up. I know now that I have to be stronger here because the rink in smaller. Plays happen faster from the boards to the net. You have to be strong on the boards. For me this is something that I have to work at. I’m lucky because I work at it every day because I have to practice against our top line (Mitch Marner, Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk).
“The world juniors was an amazing time … different [than the OHL]. I was back on the big ice but the level is so high. It was faster, players are stronger, more skilled. It was tougher, especially with the big guys—you have to skate faster to keep having good position with them.”
Juolevi’s skill set and situation is an almost perfect counterpoint to Chychrun’s. Said one NHL scouting director: “Chychrun has all the tools, great skating, great shot, size, but you keep waiting for him to make plays and you’re left wanting more. Maybe the team is a bit of a factor. Maybe Chychrun would look different if he were playing with [a stronger team in London]. And maybe there’s a bit of hype to it—we heard about Chychrun before he played in the OHL. We’ve been seeing him for two years. He doesn’t make the Canadian team [for the WJC]. Maybe we’re just looking to pick him apart more.”
According to three scouts surveyed this week, all see Juolevi in the top eight in the NHL draft in June and say that he’s in the mix to be the fourth or fifth player selected. (The first three picks are conceded to be Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.) And barring injury and with an expected deep run by the Knights, Juolevi figures to have more of an opportunity to raise his stock than Chychrun and Sergachev. Which even he didn’t see coming.