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“He’s a winner"

by Tyson Giuriato / Vancouver Canucks
Dale Hunter knows a thing or two about blue-chip prospects.

The London Knights owner and head coach has seen 50 of his players, including 16 in the first round, selected at the NHL Draft since he stepped behind the bench in the 2001-02 season. Players like Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Kane, John Tavares and Bo Horvat all walked to the podium as members of the Knights.

Hunter knows NHL talent when he sees it. One of his latest blue-chip prospects to become a member of an NHL organization is Olli Juolevi. The Knights defenceman was selected by the Vancouver Canucks with the fifth overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft.

“He is a puck moving defenceman and that is what everybody is looking for,” said Hunter. “He has a good transition game and breaks out of his own zone cleanly. He is a great passer and there is no fear to his game. He is one of those defenceman that forwards love to have back there passing them the puck.”

Selected by the Knights with the 45th overall pick at the 2015 CHL Import Draft, Juolevi was perhaps not on the radars of many a year ago. But after an adjustment to the smaller ice surface, he quickly rose up the draft boards of many teams.

“He had to get used to the smaller ice surface,” said Hunter. “He had to learn to move a lot quicker. On the big ice you have lots of room. From Christmas on he just kept getting better and better.”

Practicing every day against one of the best lines in all of junior hockey featuring Christian Dvorak, Mitch Marner and Matthew Tkachuk didn’t hurt either. That line combined for 344 points during the regular season, while playing less than 60 games. Not to mention the 50 goals they scored in 18 playoff games.

“In junior we practice a lot of one-on-ones and two-on-ones and when you go against guys like that all the time, it will elevate your game,” said Hunter, the only player in NHL history to record 1,000 career points and 3,000 career penalty minutes. “You could see him get better and better every week.”

But perhaps it wasn’t his play with the Knights that sold the Canucks brass on selecting him with the fifth overall pick. It came with Team Finland at the World Juniors, where Juolevi set a record for points by an underage defenceman with nine, while also capturing the gold medal.

Since 1999, Juolevi is only the seventh defenceman to play in the World Juniors during his 17-year-old season and then go on to be a Top 5 pick at the NHL Draft. The others: Jay Bouwmeester, Erik Johnson, Victor Hedman, Adam Larsson, Aaron Ekblad and Noah Hanifin. That’s an impressive list. But none of those were playing on the gold medal winning team.

After returning from the World Juniors, his production dipped a bit. Most likely due to fatigue. But in March, he ramped it back up in time for the playoffs, where he tallied 21 points in 22 games to help the Knights win the OHL Championship. He then helped them win the Memorial Cup, netting seven points in four games.

Needless to say, he’s a big time player. And it’s not just what he does with the puck in those big-time games.

“He’s a winner. He wants to win,” said Hunter. “One thing I like about him is that during the Memorial Cup it was a 1-1 game and he goes out and blocks a big shot. He went down on one knee, had perfect timing and made a heck of a block. That’s what you like and that’s why coaches like these type of players. He moves the puck well and all that, but at the same time he will block a shot and save you a goal.”

As for making the Canucks out of camp, Hunter doesn’t like to make predictions on that. If he makes it, he makes it. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. But one thing he is sure on, the Canucks got a good one in Olli Juolevi.

“He is a great team guy,” said Hunter. “The players on the team all love him. Vancouver has a player that will be around for a long time.”

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