Finally healthy, Canucks' Olli Juolevi ready to prove he belongs in NHL

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VANCOUVER – The last time Olli Juolevi felt this healthy was 2½ years ago, before he injured his back training for the transition to professional hockey in North America.

After that, there was a significant knee injury with the AHL's Utica Comets -- and two more surgeries. Then a perplexing hip issue.

Juolevi spent the last two off-seasons trying to get healthy. Now fully fit, he’s finally able to focus on getting better.

Does this mean the defenceman the Vancouver Canucks chose fifth overall in 2016 – ahead of more dynamic blue-liners Mikhail Sergachev (ninth) and Charlie McAvoy (14th) – is ready to become a National Hockey League regular? Not necessarily. But it means he can try to be.

Four years has been a long time to wait.

“When you think how things were four years ago, that feels like ages ago,” Juolevi said in an interview from Helsinki. “There’s always something you can do for yourself. You just work your ass off and make every day your best day. It’s a long time, but I’m still only 22 years old.”

The Stanley Cup playoff bubble last summer and its lack of media access meant there wasn’t much written about Juolevi’s long-awaited NHL debut in a series-clinching win against the Minnesota Wild on Aug. 7.

Juolevi logged six minutes and 16 seconds, killed one penalty, wasn’t involved in any goals and helped keep the Wild shot-less while he was on the ice. OK, so maybe, that performance didn’t merit a five-part deep dive.

But he’s going to get a lot more attention if the NHL opens another season in January because even before the exodus of players from Vancouver in free agency, Juolevi was pencilled in as the Canucks' third left-side defenceman.

General manager Jim Benning has said numerous times that Juolevi is ready for the next step. It’s a doozy.

“For sure, it’s difficult times when you’re injured,” Juolevi said. “But I feel every time I’ve played and I’ve been healthy, I’ve played good hockey. That gives you confidence. Even this past year in Utica, the team and how we played, it was really good for me.

“It’s always been more rehabbing and trying to get healthy than actually working out and getting better. Now, when you’re healthy, it feels great that you can focus on getting better. It’s a huge thing for me right now.

“Just the way I can play a defensive game now, it’s a huge difference (from four years ago). I’m definitely a better player overall. I think I’m really close to the player I always thought I could be. I think my pucks skills and my hockey IQ has always been there, and now you add that defensive side of the game, it’s going to be really good.”

Juolevi spent his draft-plus-one season with the London Knights in junior before playing as a 19-year-old with TPS Turku in Finland, where he had 19 points in 38 games and was one of Liiga’s top rookies.

Then came his back injury. But Juolevi was off to an excellent start in the American Hockey League as a 20-year-old until his 2018-19 season ended after just 18 games with a knee injury that required two operations.

Despite a month-long shutdown in the middle of last season due to ongoing soreness in his hip – possibly a byproduct of his knee injury – Juolevi had a productive development year with the Comets. He had 25 points in 45 games and added defensive duties, including the penalty kill.

The COVID-19 pause last spring allowed Juolevi to further heal and fully train, and he was excellent at the Canucks’ summer camp, playing his way on to the expanded playoff roster. When third-pairing defenceman Oscar Fantenberg was unable to play against Minnesota, coach Travis Green went with Juolevi.

Fantenberg is now in the Kontinental Hockey League.

“I only knew after the warmups that I was in that night,” Juolevi recalled. “There wasn’t too much time to be nervous or anything like that. It was a great team. And of course, I’d been waiting for that for a long time.

“I think there’s a lot of guys that dream to play in the NHL. It was a little different for me that my first game came in the bubble. But I always believed and knew that I was good enough to play there, and when I got the chance I would show it. It was a really good experience.”

Even with his playoff cameo, Juolevi remains the only player from the first 17 picks of the 2016 draft who hasn’t logged a regular-season game in the NHL. Power forward Matthew Tkachuk, Juolevi’s junior teammate whom the Canucks allowed to go sixth to the Calgary Flames, has already played 293 NHL games.

Juolevi is never making up that deficit on Tkachuk. With a nuanced, understated game, Juolevi may never do enough to justify his draft position. But, as he says, he’s only 22 years old and feels he belongs in the NHL.

After six weeks in the Edmonton bubble, he also feels like part of the Canucks.

“Spending time with the team and coaches and everybody, just being around the guys to get to know them, it’s a big part to becoming a player,” he said. “You know more of the guys and they can trust you and they can see that you can play with them. I think the whole bubble thing was really good.

“Elias (Pettersson) and Quinn (Hughes), I was more with those guys because they’re younger like me. But you get to know the older guys, too. The guys who have been in the league for a while, you spend some time with them and get some tips about how to play in this league. It’s huge for a young guy.”

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