Coming in at number five on our 2020 CanucksArmy Vancouver Canucks prospect rankings is defenceman Olli Juolevi.

Infamously drafted back in 2016 ahead of Matthew Tkachuk, Olli Juolevi’s road to the NHL has been anything but smooth.

The Finnish rearguard has struggled to stay healthy for much of his junior and professional career, and not only has that slowed down his development, but it’s also kept him out of the NHL.

That was, up until July’s training camp, when Juolevi not only forced his way onto the Canucks’ playoff roster, but was the first man called upon when injury struck the Canucks’ blueline.

Juolevi looked to be playing with much more confidence, perhaps the most confident he’s had since his junior days with the London Knights.

The reason for his high draft ranking was his above-average defensive IQ, playmaking capabilities, and his ability to quickly transition the puck up the ice, among other things. Really, Juolevi was a well-rounded complete defenceman who multiple teams had near the top five of their draft rankings.

Here’s what EliteProspects had to say about Juolevi in his draft year:

A competitive spark-plug, Olli Juolevi is a complete, all-around defenceman who can hem the opposition in their own end or make things difficult for the opposition at home; either way, he puts the pressure on and lays it on thick. A strong and balanced skater, he can rush the puck through the neutral zone with ease or backcheck with haste. Uses his size to his advantage, but knows his physical limits and plays within them. Instead of playing overly physical, he makes his presence felt by exhibiting his high-end playmaking ability and puck possession play. All-in-all, a well-rounded blueliner who thrives under pressure and can be trusted in all situations. (Curtis Joe, EP 2016)

After watching Juolevi play last year in Utica, and more recently at training camp in July, I’d say the only thing that’s different about Juolevi now is that his skating isn’t something I’d call strong, and that can likely be attributed to Juolevi’s multiple lower-body injuries.

At training camp in September of 2019, Juolevi couldn’t participate in certain stretches, couldn’t pivot well, and looked out of place around NHL competition.

Then a knee injury caused his season in Utica to get off to a rocky start, and Juolevi couldn’t really get his legs under him. He was tasked with playing big minutes on the penalty kill, and nobody blocked more shots than him on the Comets last year.

What lacked, however, was his ability to defend on the rush, and to pivot quickly. When watching Juolevi’s games, those were the main things that stood out, and they are legitimate concerns when it comes to his ability to defend against NHL competition.

That being said, I’d be willing to bet Juolevi wasn’t 100% healthy at that time, because during training camp in July, and in his limited minutes — all six of them — in game four against the Minnesota Wild, Juolevi’s skating looked significantly better.

At camp, he was pivoting fine (there’s still plenty of room for improvement), participating in all of the stretches, and looked comfortable defending against NHL players.

Now, scrimmages are much different than a real game, but it’s no secret that the Canucks are high on Juolevi and have him pencilled in to the opening night roster.

Head coach Travis Green talked in July about how he was pleasantly surprised by Juolevi’s performance at camp, and how the Canucks’ staff was working with him more one-on-one than they do with other players. A month later, he called on Juolevi to slot into the lineup when Oscar Fantenberg went down with injury.

Juolevi wasn’t even a lock to travel to Edmonton with the team. In fact, it even seemed like a bit of a longshot, with names like Brogan Rafferty, Guillaume Brisebois and Ashton Sautner ahead of him, the latter two both having played NHL games under Green.

If Juolevi makes the team this year, he will bring a high defensive IQ and will help the Canucks break the puck out of their own end in transition with some quick and creative stretch passes. Something that could give him an advantage in his endeavours to make the team over names like Jack Rathbone and Brogan Rafferty is his ability to kill penalties effectively. Juolevi could certainly help to fill a bit of the void left by the departure of Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, both of whom spent time on the PK last year.

He’s had all offseason to train and work on the things the Canucks coaching staff have laid out for him. Now it’s up to him to come in to camp and force his way into the lineup.

The question then will become whether or not he can finally stay healthy for a full season.