Jason Botchford: In Juolevi, Canucks got their d-man, if not their main man

 

 
 
 
 
Olli Juolevi is the newest Canuck.
 

Olli Juolevi is the newest Canuck.

Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Olli Juolevi predicted this three weeks ago.

Some people who follow the Canucks closely, did likewise much earlier.

In January, around the time management openly discussed the National Hockey League team’s preference of taking a defenceman in the first round of the entry draft, word from the front office circulated that Juolevi ranked as Vancouver’s top-rated, draft-eligible blue-liner.

Plenty of unexpected things subsequently happened. The Canucks’ season bottomed out. They found themselves with a higher-than-planned-for top-five pick. It left them, seemingly, in position to draft 210-pound star two-way forward, and potential first-line centre, Pierre-Luc Dubois.

But when Columbus stunned Buffalo Friday, selecting Dubois at third-overall, and Edmonton took Finnish star winger Jesse Puljujarvi at No. 4 — instead of the defenceman they had reportedly planned on — the Canucks were back to the start.

It meant Juolevi’s was Vancouver’s fifth overall pick. It’s not necessarily what the Canucks hoped for — and many believe the Canucks missed out on their guy.

But all was not lost. Vancouver GM Jim Benning has been gushing about Juolevi for some time.


The Draft Day edition of the Pat-cast has Jeff Paterson and Jason Botchford in Buffalo, with more on the day that was for Jim Benning:


 He believes in Juolevi as a top-pairing stud. In April, he compared Juolevi’s hockey sense to legend Nicklas Lidstrom. That was some comparison.

“He has the hockey sense to step in and play,” Benning said. “He needs to get physically stronger though. Because he’s so smart he could come in and not look out of place.”

Juolevi did nothing to back away from the heady Lidstrom talk. In fact, Juolevi, who would be the Finn with the most swag at this draft if not for Patrick Laine, predicted three weeks ago he’d be the first defenceman drafted. The reason? His brain.

“I’m pretty smart,” Juolevi said after the Canucks drafted him. “It’s hard to teach. Someone can go to the gym and get more muscles. Someone can shoot the puck and get a better shot.

“But it’s hard to teach smarts.”

Even Benning admitted Juolevi doesn’t have a “separating skill.”

But the player the Canucks passed on sure does. That’s why the crowd in the packed First Niagara Center audibly gasped just as the Canucks announced their pick, and people realized they would not be drafting goal-scorer Matthew Tkachuk.

Juolevi’s teammate with the Memorial Cup-winning London Knights, Tkachuk scored 20 goals in 18 playoff games, and was so good some were predicting he’d be off the board before the fourth pick.

Benning, however, was adamant that Juolevi ranked fifth on their board, ahead of Tkachuk, and he was a best-player-available choice. Smart people who work for NHL teams said they thought the Vancouver choice was a wise pick.

Benning said Juolevi topped his list midway through the season. He said he saw him play roughly six times this year.

“Coming out of the world juniors, we thought he had an exceptional tournament,” Benning said. “His ability to defend and his hockey awareness (stood out).

“He used his hockey sense to have sticks in lanes, to break up plays. Then, when he gets his stick on it, his ability to move the puck to forwards fast, we just thought in today’s game that’s a special skill. He’s a complete defenceman.”

Tkachuk instead fell to the Calgary Flames at No. 6, which will make for some wonderful comparisons a few years from now.

Benning said there was some consideration to moving down.

“But we didn’t know how the top of the draft was going to unfold,” he said. “We kept hearing different things. When the rankings came out, everyone was saying Puljujarvi was going third. So we couldn’t predict the top four players were going to go before we picked.”

Juolevi grew up in Helsinki and just turned 18 in May. He started skating with his older brother, though his parents — Timo and Anne — weren’t huge fans of the sport.

They are now.

There were 23 teams who interviewed Juolevi. Anne said she thought he could go as low as No. 15. She was beyond thrilled it was the Canucks who drafted him.

“When I get up at 6 a.m, the West Coast NHL games are still on,” Anne said. “My sons and husband were getting up at 2 a.m. to watch his games in London. I can’t do that.

“I can start thinking about watching him play again and that’s really exciting.”

jbotchford@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/botchford

 
 
 
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Olli Juolevi is the newest Canuck.
 

Olli Juolevi is the newest Canuck.

Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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