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Canucks' Olli Juolevi brimming with confidence

Prospect aims to make name for himself one day with Vancouver defense

by Kevin Woodley / Correspondent

VANCOUVER -- Olli Juolevi left a distinct impression on Vancouver Canucks director of player development Stan Smyl this week during development camp.

In fact, from the initial time he laid eyes on Juolevi, Smyl was taken by the Finnish defenseman's confidence, both on and off the ice.

Juolevi has rarely lacked in self-assurance, saying he deserved to be the first defenseman picked in the 2016 NHL Draft even before the Canucks concurred by selecting him fifth.

"Just from the first day I met him, how confident he is in himself and how poised he is on the ice," Smyl said. "What he carries off the ice, he carries on the ice too."

It wasn't until Juolevi got into his first informal scrimmage on Wednesday, however, that Smyl thought the 18-year-old might also be able to back up talk earlier in the week that he would return to Canucks training camp in September with the goal of making the NHL this season.

Video: Canucks draft D Olli Juolevi No. 5

As impressive as Juolevi had been in two days of skills and skating drills, the puck movement and decision-making that made him the Canucks' highest drafted defenseman in 18 years (Bryan Allen, No. 4, 1998) really stood out once the coaches opened things up for a half-hour game against his peers.

"Of course, if it's a game you want to show what you have and how good you are," Juolevi said.

Whether it was making two forecheckers miss in the corner before skating the puck up ice, making a quick reverse under pressure to an open defense partner for another easy exit, or setting up a goal with a nice pass at the other blue line, Juolevi stood out Wednesday.

"He sees things so much different from other players," Smyl said. "Making a play, jumping in, backing off, for me at the end of the day, it's his poise. He doesn't get rattled, he knows what he's doing with the puck really quickly. Those are the things our scouting staff talked about and today was the first day I really saw it. You watch these kids and they all skate really well, but that's the separator, his hockey instinct and his poise. He doesn't get rattled by pressure."

The reality is Juolevi will almost certainly spend at least one more season with London in the Ontario Hockey League, where he had nine goals and 33 assists in 57 regular-season games before winning the Memorial Cup Championship in May. He also should return to the blue line for Finland at the World Junior Championships in December after helping the Finns win the gold medal last season with nine assists, tops among defensemen in the tournament.

For now, though, Juolevi is looking forward to getting back home to Helsinki after a long first season in North America. But it's not as if the 6-foot-3, 179-pound, left-shot defensemen is going home to rest for the summer. Juolevi plans to start working next week with a personal trainer and skating coach, part of a group of five that will include Teuvo Teravainen of the Carolina Hurricanes and Jesse Puljujarvi, who was picked one spot ahead of Joulevi in the draft by the Edmonton Oilers.

"It's a pretty short (break), but when I get home and there is no media all the time and all those things, it's more relaxing for me just to work out," Juolevi said. "I have to get stronger if I want to play in the NHL at a high level."

Learning how to do that properly is a big part of development camp, but it doesn't sound as if the Canucks need to worry about their hopeful future first-pair defenseman bulking up too much. He knows where his strengths lie.

"I don't want to lose my smoothness on the ice," Juolevi said. "I'm not going to bulk up [to] like 225 pounds and then I am fat and slow on the ice. You have to be smart."

The Canucks, who haven't picked a defenseman in the top 10 of the draft since selecting Luc Bourdon No. 10 in 2005, are planning to be smart regarding Juolevi's path to the NHL. Smyl talked about helping him get stronger, and how he figured the Canucks can help all prospects improve their skating "five to 10 percent," but just as important to Juolevi's development is Vancouver's relationship with the coach who likely will guide it for another season or two.

With Dale Hunter coaching London, a team that has produced 50 NHL Draft picks and 16 first-round selections, including Canucks center Bo Horvat, since 2001, Smyl isn't worried.

"There is that patience side of it and I don't want to get too excited right now," Smyl said, pausing slightly. "But what I saw in that first scrimmage is pretty impressive."

The next test for Juolevi will be repeating his poised performance at a prospects tournament in September, and then against older, stronger NHL players in training camp and the preseason.

"Then the next level and the next level," Smyl said. "We don't want to rush him."

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