Canucks preaching a cautious approach with Olli Juolevi

Calgary Flames goalie Tyler Parsons (82) makes a save as Vancouver Canucks' Olli Juolevi (48), of Finland, falls on top of him during the third period of a pre-season NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday September 19, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

VANCOUVER – Twelve years after he was drafted 26th overall by the St. Louis Blues, David Perron still hears on visits to Vancouver how the Canucks should have taken him 25th that year in Columbus.

“It’s unbelievable,” Perron, 31, told Sportsnet during the Blues’ run to the Stanley Cup last spring. “Every time I go there, somebody brings its up. Patrick White.”

White, the regrettable first-round choice of former Canucks general manager Dave Nonis, was later dumped on the San Jose Sharks by successor Mike Gillis and never played a professional hockey game in North America.

A centre who didn’t hit 10 goals or 20 points during four seasons at the University of Minnesota, White scuffled for years through second-tier pro leagues in Europe. Perron has merely logged 779 games in the National Hockey League, scoring 198 goals and 490 points.

Hockey fans in Vancouver never forget, which tells you what Olli Juolevi is up against.

The 21-year-old defenceman has worked his way back from “complicated” knee surgery last December and will be among the headliners during the Canucks’ prospects camp this weekend at Rogers Arena.

Before a torn meniscus, among other damaged knee components, derailed Juolevi’s rookie season in the AHL last November, the Finn underwent back surgery the previous spring.

But truly, the unluckiest thing for Juolevi was his draft position in 2016. Canuck GM Jim Benning took him fifth overall, right before the Calgary Flames chose power forward Matthew Tkachuk sixth.

Benning badly needed a stud defence prospect for his rebuild, but could have drafted the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Mikhail Sergechev (ninth overall) or Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins (14th), for whom there were advocates within the Canucks’ hockey operations.

Benning believed in Juolevi. He still does.

But while Tkachuk has already logged 224 games and amassed 174 points for the rival Flames, Juolevi is the only player among the first 17 drafted in 2016 who has yet to play in the NHL.

This doesn’t make Juolevi a bust. It just makes him disappointing.

“If you get drafted at a lower number, it’s always different,” Juolevi said Thursday when asked if being a fifth-overall pick has made his slow start, relative to others in his draft class, more difficult. “It’s easier to be in the shadows. But I don’t really care about my draft number. I’m happy to be here in Vancouver and I think we have great things to come.

“I don’t really follow (social media) too much, but I know there’s a lot of passionate fans who want to see me play in Vancouver, and that’s what I’m working to do. There’s been a lot of bad luck. But I hope I can now be healthy and show what I’ve got and get my chance.”

The elite draft position for Juolevi, who when healthy does many things well but nothing spectacularly, elevated projections for him. By definition, he was overrated. Ironically, Juolevi is probably now underrated.

He will never catch Tkachuk, but remains an excellent prospect and is still more likely than not to have a long NHL career.

“I know the type of player he is and is going to be,” Benning said Thursday after Juolevi skated informally at Rogers Arena with many of the Canucks. “He’s had some bad luck with injuries. But he’s smart and moves the puck, and he can be one of our mainstays on defence for the next 10 years. I’ve always been bullish on him.

“I get it, the players around him (in the 2016 draft) have all played. People have seen what type of players they are, so I get that. I still feel Olli’s going to be a real good player for us. Once he’s up and going, let’s judge him then.”

Juolevi was working towards an NHL callup last season. He had 13 points in 18 games for the Utica Comets, and if his excellent first half continued the Canucks were going to bring the defenceman to Vancouver for the second half of the season.

Instead, Juolevi was injured on Nov. 17 and underwent surgery a month later. The Canucks haven’t revealed the full damage to Juolevi’s knee, and the player said Thursday only that it was “complicated.”

“Yes, of course, it was really tough,” he said. “I had high hopes for last year. I thought I started the year great and was playing good hockey in Utica. I was hoping to make an impact for Vancouver after Christmas. It was tough mentally, absolutely.

“Especially when all the injuries are things you couldn’t do much (to prevent), of course, you think: ‘Is there something I can do different?’ It’s frustrating for sure, but I hope all that is behind me. There’s been enough (setbacks) for me. That’s why I’m hoping to stay healthy now.”

Benning reiterated that Juolevi has been fully cleared medically, but the organization will be careful with him and may mandate some rest days during training camp and the pre-season.

“He might not miss one day,” Benning said. “He might play games and everything’s great and away we go. But we’re going to be careful with him because he hasn’t played in 10 months.

“Coming off that knee surgery, we just want to make sure we handle it the right way. We don’t want him to get injured again.”

The Canucks don’t need Juolevi this fall. They have seven NHL defencemen under contract, plus super-rookie Quinn Hughes. But there is still a lack of organizational depth on defence, and Juolevi remains important to the Canucks’ future.

“I have the confidence all the time,” he said. “I know I am good. I knew last year whenever I got the chance, I was going to be helpful to the team. That’s the same mindset now. When I’m fully healthy and ready to go, I know I can help this team. Of course, you’ve got to be healthy to achieve your goals.”

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