London defenseman Olli Juolevi believes he is the best player available at his position in the 2016 NHL Draft.
"I'm the smartest of the [defensemen]; something that is hard to teach," Juolevi said. "It's like one of those natural things that you either have or you don't have. You can always go practice your shooting or skating or whatever, but that's a hard thing to improve."
Sarnia defenseman Jakob Chychrun would relish the opportunity to be the first defenseman off the board.
"Obviously, you want to be the first defenseman taken, but I didn't have the ideal year I wanted and I understand [Juolevi and Windsor defenseman Mikhail Sergachev] are in the conversation and had great years, so we'll see what happens," Chychrun said. "I'm not going to stress too much about it. I just want to enjoy draft day. The only thing that matters is what I do after the draft."
The debate over which defenseman should be selected first, Juolevi or Chychrun, has been a hot topic of discussion. Juolevi is the gifted puck-mover with a tremendous hockey IQ. Chychrun is the physically developed teenager considered one of the finest defensive skaters of this draft class.
"Just because Chychrun is a great skater doesn't automatically mean he's going to post great offensive numbers, but if you can beat pressure in your own zone, get the puck moving out of your zone and transition the puck up, that's contributing to offense in a different way and that's what Jakob does," TSN hockey analyst Craig Button told NHL.com.
Button favors Juolevi, who he said reminds him a lot of San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
"Juolevi is just very subtle, complete; he's not going to overwhelm you in one area, but in the end you learn you can't really get an advantage against him either," Button said. "I think he can do it offensively, but defensively he doesn't have the same panache as Chychrun. But Juolevi, to me, has more completeness to his game."
Chychrun's 49 points (11 goals, 38 assists) were fourth among defensemen in the Ontario Hockey League this season. He has 27 goals and 82 points in 104 career OHL games. Juolevi's 42 points (nine goals, 33 assists) were 13th among OHL defensemen, and he had three goals and 14 points in 18 playoff games. Juolevi led defensemen in the Memorial Cup with seven assists and seven points in four games.
Chychrun (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) is No. 4 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, and Juolevi (6-2, 188) is No. 5.
"At the end of the day, it will be up to the NHL teams to decide who they believe will be the better fit for their organization, but it is [NHL Central Scouting's] opinion that Juolevi has made a very strong impression this season," said NHL Central Scouting's Matt Ryan, who evaluates OHL prospects. "Chychrun made the same kind impression his first season [in 2014-15], and his game has continued to develop his second year in the OHL.
"They are each outstanding prospects."
NHL.com sought the opinion of 11 NHL scouts who watched each player this season, and Juolevi held an 8-3 advantage. The scouts promised honesty in exchange for anonymity.
Scouts in favor of Juolevi:
"Chychrun is a physical specimen, and probably the best 1-on-1 defender in the draft, with great footwork, so there's obviously a lot to like about his game. I believe they both have top-pairing potential, but for me Juolevi's hockey sense is off the charts. I see a lot of Oliver Ekman-Larsson in Juolevi. I see the potential to be the No. 1 guy and run the power play at the NHL level. He played with elite players in Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi for Finland [at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship], and he's able to think and compete on that level. He makes the plays that few guys his age can make."
"I just love the hockey sense."
"Chychrun is going to show up at someone's training camp in September and they're going to go, 'Whoa, he might be playing here this year.' But five years from now, Juolevi could be the better player. I can understand why, depending on the team making the pick, you can make a case why you would take either one. I think with Chychrun it's what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and I just think you have to look long term in this instance. I think a few years from now when Juolevi gets stronger and fills out, he'll be a better player."
"There's more of a complete package with Juolevi. He's going to be a guy that's able to defend, put up a ton of points and be the top-scoring defenseman on his team for many years. I can see Chychrun becoming more of a two-way guy but not have the offense that Juolevi has."
Scouts in favor of Chychrun:
"I saw Chychrun as a double underage player at the World Under-17 Hockey Championship (in 2013-14). I saw him as an underage player in Sarnia and this year have watched him five or six more times. I'd have a hard time leaving him on the table. I don't know why, but I know he's big and strong and just does so many things well. The footwork is great. Juolevi is going to be a good one, but I just think it's a longer path for him. He's very good, but I'd have a hard time passing on Chychrun; he's high on my list."
"Chychrun is just a beast. Juolevi can be pushed around; he's easy to play against."
"If Chychrun wasn't playing in the (World Under-18 Championship for Canada) in April, I definitely would have said Juolevi. But I think Chychrun changed a lot of people's lists because of the way he played for Canada. He was really good in North Dakota (with one goal, four points and 27 shots in seven games)."