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NHL Draft

London's Juolevi gaining traction as top defenseman

Strong season, star turn at WJC has him closing gap on Chychrun

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2016 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Inquiring minds want to know if the recent play of London defenseman Olli Juolevi has enabled him to close the gap between himself and Sarnia defenseman Jakob Chychrun as the best at his position available for the 2016 NHL Draft.

Juolevi, a 6-foot-2, 179-pound left-shot defender, has nine goals and 38 points in his first season in North America. He also had a star turn for his native Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, which was played in Helsinki, Finland.

He had nine points, all assists, in seven games to help Finland win the gold medal. His point total was the most in WJC history by a 17-year-old defenseman, breaking the record of seven points set by Ryan Ellis of Canada at the 2009 WJC.

"I worked hard this season and wanted to be great at the World Juniors but there was really good guys on our team and it was fun to play with all of them," Juolevi said. "They helped me and I hope I helped them.

"To win that tournament in my hometown in front of all my family and friends watching was a great experience, something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

Juolevi's major contributions to Finland's championship effort weren't a surprise to those who have watched him with London. He's third in scoring among Ontario Hockey League rookie defensemen, and his plus-30 leads all first-year OHL players. He also has four power-play goals and 23 power-play points. Juolevi is No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters for the 2016 draft. 

"Juolevi is a heck of a player and is having an impressive season," said NHL Central Scouting's Matt Ryan, who evaluates OHL prospects. "He burst onto the scene and didn't require the adjustment period that most players coming from Europe do. What makes him so good is that he possesses elite hockey sense. His poise with the puck is that of a much older player and he has the ability to see the ice the way most players can't."

The only defenseman ranked ahead of Juolevi is Chychrun, who is No. 2 on Central Scouting's list. Though Chychrun is regarded as the best defenseman on the draft board, Juolevi has gained plenty of supporters, including some who believe Juolevi could be the top-ranked defense prospect by the end of the junior hockey season.

"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," Ryan said. "Chychrun made the same kind impression his first season [in 2014-15] and his game has continued to develop in his second year in the OHL.

"They are each outstanding prospects."

London left wing Matthew Tkachuk said he's been impressed with the impact Juolevi has made with their team this season.

"[Juolevi] is a young kid but a good puck mover who can skate very well," said Tkachuk, who is No. 1 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking. "He's that prototypical Finnish defenseman who likes to rush the puck and have the puck on his stick."

Juolevi said he considers himself a smart skater with a good work ethic.

"I really like to watch [Arizona Coyotes defenseman] Oliver Ekman-Larsson because his offensive game is so good, but he's also a two-way defenseman," Juolevi said. "I like to pass the puck more and help with the offensive game. I feel I play a solid two-way game, but I can help most on the offensive side."

Juolevi grew up playing in the Jokerit Helsinki organization where one of his early coaches was Markku Kyllonen, who played nine games with the Winnipeg Jets during the 1988-89 season. 

"I learned a lot from Kyllonen; he was my coach when I was 15 years old and when I played in Junior B and Junior C," he said. "He made me a better all-around player."

Last season Juolevi had six goals and 32 points in 44 games with Jokerit's under-20 team and London selected him with the 45th pick of the 2015 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft. 

Also a huge soccer fan and avid follower of the German team Bayern Munich, Juolevi played soccer for eight years before deciding to dedicate his efforts on the ice.

"It was always my secondary sport," he said of soccer. "I think it's great to have many sports when you're young, but hockey was always No. 1 for me."

Juolevi said the most talented player he has played against this season was center Auston Matthews, No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of international skaters for the 2016 draft. The Arizona-born Matthews has starred for Zurich in Switzerland's top pro league and helped the United States win the bronze medal at the 2016 WJC.

"He's just a complete player, big and fast, and he has a good shot," Juolevi said. "He's got good hockey IQ and is hard to defend."

Juolevi said he relishes the challenges that come playing against the top players and knows that the only way to learn and improve his game is by facing the best competition. 

Ryan said he feels Juolevi is capable of doing that on a consistent basis in the NHL.

"He's an excellent skater who is able to avoid pressure by using his feet to create separation, allowing him to make plays in all three zones," Ryan said. "He displays very good offensive instincts and his skill set suggests he'll be able to take his offensive game to another level as he continues to mature as a player."

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