Since before the start of the 2015-16 season, draft pundits thought they had the top-three all figured out: Auston Matthews first, Jakob Chychrun second and Jesse Puljujarvi third. The emergence of the Finns, though, has thrown off the status quo. Some now believe that Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine are the next-best prospects after Matthews, effectively pushing Chychrun out of a top-three spot entirely.
But it’s not just the forwards who are challenging the Sarnia Sting defender’s prominent spot near the top of the draft rankings – for some, a previously unknown, underrated defenseman named Olli Juolevi has become the top defender available in the draft class.
The third-highest scorer among Ontario Hockey League rookie defensemen (and a top-20 scorer among all OHL defensemen), Juolevi’s offensive instincts make him an attractive prospect to potential NHL suitors. The Helsinki, Finland native has scored 34 points (7G, 27A) in 48 games for the stacked London Knights team this season, but his defensive talent is what has truly separated him from the rest of the team’s defenders, effectively making him their No. 1 guy on the back end.
The Knights drafted Juolevi with their 45th overall pick in the 2015 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. Usually a crap-shoot for all involved, the import draft serves the most popular teams – such as the Knights, the Halifax Mooseheads and the Portland Winterhawks, to name a few – the best. The top international players often refuse to report to the CHL team that has drafted them if the team is projected to be a cellar-dwellar by season’s end, or if the location/ownership group of the team is less than desirable. It’s really the only draft where a player can choose not to report and it won’t affect their reputation.
So when London selected the highly-touted Juolevi, coming off a career year with Jokerit U20 in Junior A SM-liiga, it was basically a given that he would report. The Knights did, after all, just get Matthew Tkachuk and Max Jones (among others) to sign on and join the likes of Mitch Marner and Christian Dvorak, so it was clearly an attractive destination.
Juolevi’s OHL performance is not the sole reason why he has risen to top-five status in the upcoming draft, though. The 17-year-old took part in the U20 World Junior Championship this year (as an underager) where he posted nine assists in just seven games, breaking the tournament scoring record for under-18 defenseman previously held by Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis.
“I knew the player (Ellis),” Juolevi told the London Free Press, “because I saw highlights from other world juniors. It didn’t mean (that much) to set a record. It’s great I got some points, but it’s not that big a thing.”
Juolevi’s humility and selflessness was evident when he led the Finns on the back end to become the 2016 U20 WJC gold medal victors. Arguably the tournament’s best defenseman, he could have let his ego take over, but he remained committed to the team commitment it takes to emerge as champions.
“Everybody in the media said all we could do is score goals — they can’t defend a team like Canada,” Juolevi said. “But then we outscored Canada, which was a good offensive team (6-5 in a wild quarterfinal). That was a big game for us. It was a big thing to win that one. We just came together and it was an attitude thing. It was teamwork.”
Though his offensive production has dropped off a bit (he scored at nearly a point-per-game pace before the WJC break), Juolevi’s overall two-way play has garnered him plenty of attention from scouts who believe that he may have what it takes to become the 2016 NHL Draft’s first defenseman off the board. The competition is tight between Chychrun and Juolevi, and the pedigree and pure defensive talent of the former may out-do the latter when draft day finally arrives.
But look for Juolevi to be a top 10, or maybe even top five, draft pick come June.