In all my days covering the Comets, I’ve never received as many questions about one specific player as I have about Olli Juolevi. The left-shot defender has been a polarizing player since the Canucks selected him from the London Knights with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Since then, all but five players from the first round of that draft have suited up for at least two NHL games. Juolevi is the highest pick from the draft who has yet to play an NHL game, while Logan Stanley, (18th overall by the Jets) Kieffer Bellows, (19th overall by the Islanders) Riley Tufte, (25th overall by the Stars) and Lucas Johansen, (28th overall by the Capitals) are the others.
In his first season of junior hockey, Juolevi put up nine goals and 33 assists to give himself 42 points in 57 games. He followed up that season with nearly identical numbers, posting 10 goals and 32 assists to give himself 42 points in 58 games with London. From there, he headed back overseas to spend a season plying his trade with TPS Turku in Finland.
While with TPS, Juolevi played 38 regular-season games and posted seven goals and 12 assists, giving him 19 points for his efforts. He grabbed another two goals and five assists in 11 playoff games before wrapping up his season.
It was during that offseason when Juolevi experienced back pain while training and ended up requiring surgery to repair a disc in his lower back. That surgery and the resulting recovery period stymied Juolevi’s training efforts and put him behind the eightball amongst his peers for the 2018/19 season.
He was able to start the 2018/19 season with the Utica Comets where he got off to a tantalizing offensive start with 13 points in 18 games before his season ended as the result of a knee injury. That knee injury required another surgery and set Juolevi back even further in his development. He wasn’t able to spend his offseason training as he normally would have but instead had to take time to recover and rehab his knee.
Juolevi was able to show up for training camp this year and compete with the rest of his young teammates, but he was still showing some signs of not being completely healed and up to speed before being assigned to the Utica Comets to start the year in the AHL.
Juolevi suited up for the Comets first 14 games and put up five points before missing nearly a full month with what the team called hip soreness. That confirmed to me what I had suspected since seeing Juolevi at training camp… that while he was able to participate in practices and games, he didn’t have 100% of the strength and power that he needed to play his game the way he is capable of playing it.
I saw a player who looked uncomfortable at times, although, to his credit, he tried to play through the discomfort. I started to wonder if it was possible that Juolevi was physically capable of playing the game, but not physically capable of doing the things that he needed to do to 100% of his ability due to a lack of strength in areas where an elite skater needs to be strong.
When I view Juolevi’s game this year, I see a player who has the hockey sense to make plays, but sometimes doesn’t have the mobility to do the things that he’s asking his body to do. It is like he is still trying to figure out an alternative way to make the play he needs to because his body won’t allow the play that is instinctual to him after years of playing the position. What might work for his muscle memory might not work for what his body is currently capable of pulling off.
We have seen it multiple times this season. The Comets are on the power play with Juolevi manning the point. The puck gets by him and he isn’t able to pivot and explode with three quick steps to either pick off the puck or check the opposing player who has grabbed it and headed the other way for a scoring chance.
In my opinion, this isn’t a hockey sense issue where Juolevi just can’t hold the line and makes bad decisions when things go awry. I think it has been more about the player dealing with his mobility issues and trying unsuccessfully to figure out a way to make up for the temporary handicap that his back, knee, and hip have become.
I see a player who knows what he wants to do, but because of a lack of proper strength in areas of his body that his game depends on, he isn’t able to effectively put those plays into action.
I am not a professional athlete, nor do I have any training in or knowledge of sports science or sports medicine. I do happen to know someone who has chosen that as their specific career path, however, so I reached out with some questions and as I expected, my suspicions about Juolevi were worth noting.
This person has asked to remain anonymous, but I can tell you that they have worked with NHL players. This was the answer that I received when I asked their thoughts on the recovery period for injuries like those that Juolevi has been working through and how they might play out for him this year.
In laymen’s terms, basically, after an injury/surgery, as you can understand, it takes time to recover from pain and swelling. After that it takes time to get strength, range of motion and muscle mass back to around normal.
At that point, it takes time to be able to use that regained strength at a quick rate. Such as being able to run really fast, skate at a maximal intensity or turn really quickly. “Return to play” and “return to perform” are very different things – it takes time!
Strength is one thing, but then being able to produce force or use your strength is another. Further, a lot of individuals I have worked with (with similar surgeries) struggle with confidence in their abilities and note not feeling “normal” until about 2 years post-op.
This may be a good thing for Canucks fans and Olli. For instance, he’s probably still not up to speed and is only now just starting to feel close to “baseline”. Perhaps, he’ll take another step soon as well. Next year will be interesting for him after a (hopefully) full off-season to train and decompress mentally.
I don’t like speculating on injuries that I don’t evaluate and assess myself, but I imagine the Canucks are/were doing everything to give Olli the best chance at long and short term success.
“Return to play and return to perform are very different things – it takes time!” That is the quote that really stands out to me in regards to Juolevi this season.
We can see Juolevi out on the ice and blocking shots on the penalty kill like a beast, dishing out beautiful stretch passes as easily as most of us breathe air and moving around the ice with relative ease. So when we see him unable to hold the blue-line and not be able to stop the opposing team from transitioning the other way, it can be easy to think that he just isn’t good at that aspect of the game.
If we step back and take into account that while the player is able to get out there and compete in games, he is still not 100% capable of doing the things that he’s been able to do in the past… if we consider that he is still trying to get his body up to speed to be able to accomplish the things that he knows he needs it to do, yet has still managed to pick up 21 points in 37 games… things might not be as dire as some believe they are for the rookie defender.
There are still areas of his game that need attention. Decisions need to come more quickly in the defensive zone at times, but overall, Olli Juolevi has done an admirable job while playing his way back from a couple of injuries that have hampered his ability to play the game that saw him selected fifth overall in his draft year.
Be patient, folks. Olli might just be worth the wait after he sorts all of this out. I see a steady, two-way defender who could be working the Canucks blue-line for many, many years to come.