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The future of the Canucks’ defence rests on the shoulders of two prospects: Quinn Hughes and Olli Juolevi.
That’s not to discount the likes of Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield, Jack Rathbone, or Jett Woo, but the only prospects in the Canucks system with true top-pairing potential are their first round picks from 2016 and 2018. Hughes has the high-end offensive talent, while Juolevi has a steady, smooth game that seems like a perfect fit for the modern NHL.
Hughes, however, won’t be plying his trade in the NHL in 2018-19, as he has chosen to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season. Juolevi, on the other hand, should make his NHL debut for the Canucks this season.
The only question is when.
The Hockey News published their annual hockey pool guide with projections for points from players around the league. Their projection for Juolevi was extremely bullish, not just for points, but for games played as well. They projected 31 points for the 20-year-old defenceman, in 72 NHL games.
The point totals on their own seem optimistic — only Alex Edler has cracked the 30 points barrier among Canucks defencemen over the last four seasons — but the games played might be the most optimistic projection.
Juolevi faces a fairly significant obstacle to playing that many games for the Canucks: all the NHL defencemen ahead of him on the depth chart. The Canucks are returning in the 2018-19 season with the same eight defencemen they used for most of the 2017-18 season: Alex Edler, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, Michael Del Zotto, Erik Gudbranson, Ben Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, and Alex Biega.
It’s certainly possible that Juolevi is better than one or more of those defencemen and shows that to be the case in training camp, but will it matter?
There are a couple key differences between Juolevi and the eight defencemen already on the Canucks roster. One is NHL experience. Another is familiarity with head coach Travis Green. But the most important is likely waiver eligibility.
All eight of those defencemen would have to go on waivers to be sent down to the AHL, whereas Juolevi isn’t waiver eligible, so can be sent down without any risk of losing him to another team. While Alex Biega could be waived and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Canucks try to trade Ben Hutton, neither of those options would get Juolevi in the Canucks lineup.
It’s far more likely that, no matter how well Juolevi performs in the preseason, he’ll start with the Utica Comets in the AHL. That will give him the opportunity to play big minutes on North American ice after a season in Finland, rather than sitting in the press box or playing minimal minutes in the NHL.
Juolevi’s best bet is to follow in the footsteps of Troy Stecher, who was a revelation in the preseason back in 2016. A year later, Canucks GM Jim Benning said, “Like with Troy Stecher...if they come into camp and they deserve to be on the team, I’ll find a spot for them.”
He didn’t find a spot for him. Instead, Stecher started the season in the AHL, but got his chance in the NHL when injuries struck. By the end of the 2016-17 season, Stecher had played 71 games and tallied 24 points. Interestingly enough, that’s not far off from the projections for Juolevi by The Hockey News.
Once again, Benning has said that young players can earn a spot in training camp, but it's hard to see a path into the lineup for Juolevi with all the other defencemen on the roster. Instead, Steacher's path is more likely for Juolevi: a strong start in Utica combined with the inevitability of injuries in Vancouver should result in a solid NHL opportunity.
Juolevi will get his chance to make an impression starting next week at the Young Stars Classic that kicks off in Penticton on September 7th.
26 - Between the regular season and playoffs, Olli Juolevi put up 26 points in 49 games as a 19-year-old in the Finnish Liiga last season.
26 - In a convenient coincidence, 26 is also the number of points projected for Juolevi over 82 NHL games using hockey analyst Ian Tulloch’s NHL Equivalency. Over the 72 games projected by The Hockey News, that comes out to 23 points, which seems like a more reasonable expectation.
Stick-Taps and Glove-Drops
I have to give analytics site FiveThirtyEight a tap of the stick for taking on a bizarre task: finding the most average teams in sports history. According to their calculations, the most average NHL team of all time was the 1976 Vancouver Canucks, who finished with a 33-32-15 record and a goal differential of minus-1.
I’m dropping the gloves with any OHL team that instructs players to scrub references to the popular video game Fortnite from their social media, as apparently some are according to a report this week. It shows a complete disconnect from the players as well as the young fans that the sport is trying to attract.