Let’s deal first with the elephant in the room, which is that the Canucks blundered by not taking Tkachuk instead of Juolevi. That’s easy to say in hindsight, which is 20/20 even in 2020. You could say the same thing about Edmonton, which took Jesse Puljujarvi with the fourth pick, and even about Columbus, which took Pierre-Luc Dubois third. Foresight is instead what is required when drafting 17- and 18-year-olds, and there were good reasons for favoring Juolevi over Tkachuk. First, he was a higher-rated prospect by many scouts, although it was close and opinions were mixed. Second, Tkachuk had a couple of red flags that may have turned some teams off. Third, the skillset Juolevi offered (and still offers) may make him better suited for today’s faster NHL. Finally came the Canucks’ crying need to restock their defence and the higher value placed on the position by teams around the league recently.
After Auston Matthews and Patrick Laine, most mock drafts that year had Puljujarvi going third to Columbus. The Canucks were widely rumored to be trading the fifth pick to Montreal for P.K. Subban if Dubois was still on the board. Edmonton probably felt fortunate to land Puljujarvi, who has instead been a massive bust. That left the Canucks with a choice of Juolevi, Tkachuk or Russian defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who went ninth to Montreal. Tkachuk was seen as a one-way player by most scouts, and a step slow at that. While he was great from the face-off dots in and tough as nails, he was hardly a 200-foot player.
Juolevi, on the other hand, was seen as poised, smooth-skating and cerebral, with a toolbox to match his impressive skillset. He was tall but slender at only 170-odd pounds, and not a physical player like Tkachuk. He had steadily climbed the draft charts that year, however, with what turned out to be a draft season for the ages. He turned in a breakout performance at the World Junior Championships, in which he scored 9 points in 7 games as Finland won the gold medal at home. It ended with a Memorial Cup championship for a powerhouse London Knights team that also included Tkachuk and Mitch Marner, who had been the fourth pick the year before. McKeen’s well-respected draft guide rated Juolevi the best defensive defenceman in the draft, the fifth-best offensive defenceman, and saw him as having the best hockey sense of any available player that year. It predicted he would be picked fourth by Edmonton and, after some seasoning, would eventually turn into a top-pairing NHL d-man. His widely-quoted comparable was Nick Lidstrom.
“Juolevi is not going to jump out at you with his physical attributes,” said a scout. “He’s not going to put a guy through the boards or win a fastest skater contest. . . what he will do is make the smart defensive play 95 per cent of the time with his instincts, agility, poise and puck skills.”The problems began the following season when Juolevi was held back in junior while his star teammates went pro. Canucks fans carped that his scoring plateaued that season, but it was actually amazing that he scored at the same rate because instead of three 100-point players, the team’s top scorer that year was Cliff Pu with 86 points. Plus a 16-year-old Evan Bouchard had joined London to add offence from the blueline, and he would go on to be a 10th overall pick by the Oilers. Still, Tkachuk was already playing for the Flames while Juolevi was still in junior, and Canucks fans are not known for their patience. Juolevi finally went pro in this D+2 season, but instead of in the AHL, where he was ineligible to play due to his age, it was back home in Finland. He racked up a respectable 19 points in 38 games as a teenager for a Turku team whose top two scorers were in their 40s. Perhaps most valuable that season was the tutelage Juolevi received from former Canucks great Sami Salo, a Turku assistant coach.
But just as OJ was about to attempt a jump to the NHL, the injuries began. He hurt his back in mid-2018 and required minor surgery that shelved him for two months. He nonetheless started the season playing big minutes in Utica, including on the power play, and led all rookie AHL d-men with 11 points in his first 14 games. Then he hurt his knee, which eventually required season-ending surgery and a long rehab. The Canucks managed his minutes closely last season, even recalling him to Vancouver for medical attention when some hip soreness flared up. Juolevi recorded 25 points in 45 games despite losing his power play spot to 24-year-old rookie phenom Brogan Rafferty. Instead he honed his special-teams skills on the penalty kill. It is likely he would have earned a late-season call-up to the Canucks had the season not ended abruptly. He should serve as a Black Ace in the pending post-season.
Now packing about 200 pounds on his 6-3 frame, Juolevi has a good shot to finally make The Show next season, whenever it might begin. After all, his play for the Comets this year drew rave reviews. “During Juolevi’s first run of games, he logged the most blocks of any Comets penalty killer, and it wasn’t even close,” noted Cody Severtson on the erstwhile Daily Hive. “Juolevi was frequently the first player to sacrifice his body for the sake of the team. . . . this reckless abandon, coupled with the workload thrust upon him, might have contributed to the hip-soreness issues that would take him out of action for the following three weeks.” Juolevi’s scoring may have gone down after his return, noted Severtson, but that was only due to losing his spot on the power play. His scoring at even strength actually skyrocketed. “After picking up just a single point at 5v5 through his first 14 games played, he then went on to pick up an additional 11 across his next 34 starts.”
One of Juolevi’s primary assets that has contributed to his impressive points-production is his elite passing and vision. From the start of the 2019-20 season, Juolevi has displayed the same patient and crisp tape-to-tape passing that featured as one of the lone bright spots during his otherwise tragic 2018-19 campaign. Juolevi’s teammate awareness has led to some gorgeous goals for the Comets.Getting offence from a shutdown defenceman is always an added bonus. “Juolevi’s ability to find teammates with a glance has allowed the Comets to be strong in transition,” added Severtson. “Along with his passing, Juolevi has a bomb of a shot and some of Juolevi’s best-looking offensive contributions have come from him moving in from the neutral zone to step into a one-timer.”