The Vancouver Canucks were hoping to land a stud scoring forward near the top of the 2016 NHL Draft. Ultimately, it didn’t break their way.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, the apple of the Canucks’ eye, was off the board unexpectedly early — snagged by the Columbus Blue Jackets with the third-overall pick. With Jesse Puljujarvi shockingly available with the fourth pick, the Edmonton Oilers, who were thought to be targeting a defenceman, made the easiest decision any club made on draft night and promptly selected the talented 6-foot-3 winger.
“We liked the players that went ahead (of the fifth-overall pick),” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said on Friday, confirming that Vancouver’s draft list looked similar to the final draft order. “But we felt that all things being equal if we could get a high-end defenceman; a guy that we think is going to be a top-pairing defenceman, it served us to keep adding to our depth on the back end.”
That high-end defenceman is Olli Juolevi, who won everything he possibly could’ve won as a 17-year-old. If Juolevi isn’t – because of his position – the heir apparent to the Sedin twins that the club might’ve been hoping to land on Friday, he certainly isn’t a consolation prize either.
The Finnish-born import joined the OHL’s London Knights this past fall and shot up draft lists with a stunning campaign. He played in all situations for the best team in the OHL, he quarterbacked a buzzsaw Finnish power play at the 2016 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, winning gold, and he anchored the blue line for a Knights team that won the Memorial Cup.
As the Canucks were building their draft list over the past 10 months, Juolevi began to cement himself at the top of the order. His performance at the World Junior Championships made a particular impression on Benning, who saw Juolevi play live on six occasions, but didn’t make the trip to the Memorial Cup tournament in May.
“We thought he had an exceptional tournament for a 17-year-old kid,” Benning recalled on Friday. “To step in and help lead his team to a championship… In all my years of scouting, I don’t think I remember a 17-year-old who did what he did this year.”
“We just felt of all the defencemen, we liked his all-around game the best,” Benning later added.
The 17-year-old Juolevi excels in transition and seems to fit the mold of the evolutionary puck-rushing defenceman that’s in vogue at the moment. He’s also supremely confident – he was confident he’d be the first defenceman off the board – and hopes to play professional hockey this upcoming season.
“That’s my goal (to play pro next year),” Juolevi said Friday. “Everybody who is going in the top-10 or so has to work so hard over the summer. And that’s what I want to do, I want to come to training camp and show what I’ve got.”
Usually those sorts of draft night comments are boilerplate, but in Juolevi’s case, it’ll be genuinely interesting to see where he plays next season. Even if he’s too slight of frame to contribute at the NHL level next season, it’s possible – because he’s an import player like Texas Stars blue liner Julius Honka – that Juolevi is eligible to play in the American League even though he’s an 18-year-old player drafted out of the CHL.
“We haven’t got to that yet,” Benning said, before adding, “I think if he was to play another year of junior it’s not going to hurt him.”
Wherever Juolevi plays, he represents the best defensive prospect that the Canucks have had in their system in, perhaps, a generation. Vancouver hasn’t selected a defenceman in the first round in over a decade and in the franchise’s 45-year history have arguably never employed a super elite No. 1 defenceman. They have tried to trade for a player of that ilk though.
Benning even landed himself in some hot water this week by admitting during a radio appearance that he called the Montreal Canadiens to talk about P.K. Subban. The NHL is investigating whether his comments violated the tampering bylaw and discussed the matter with Benning on Friday.
While Benning was guarded in discussing the specifics of his conversation with the league, Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was forthcoming.
“I was not happy and I’m still not happy about that,” Bergevin said on Friday. “The league is looking into it.
“He crossed the line,” continued the Canadiens executive. “I don’t know where the line was crossed, but he definitely crossed the line.”
It’s an unfortunate episode from a Canucks perspective, but underscores the relative impossibility teams interested in acquiring high-end defencemen on the trade market or through free agency face. As Benning emphasized at length on Saturday, the rarity with which top-pairing defencemen change teams impacted Vancouver’s decision to take Juolevi with their fifth-overall pick.
“We want to build from the back-end through the middle of the ice,” Benning said. “He had an exceptional season, an exceptional playoff, but we felt that to get a high-end defenceman served us well going forward.
“This was a player that we really liked. We felt that to get a top-pairing defenceman, it’s hard to get these guys in trades. You have to draft and develop them.”