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FEATURE | A year of firsts

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers
Olli Juolevi, defenceman for the London Knights. Photo by Getty Images.

Patrick Laine versus Jesse Puljujarvi.

They are the top two European-born players heading into the 2016 NHL Draft, projected to be selected second and third overall.

Two right-wing, Finnish 18-year-olds, both members of the IIHF World Junior Championship team, Puljujarvi taking home MVP and top-forward honours with five goals and 17 points in seven games, Laine finishing third with seven goals and 13 points.

Their World Junior teammate Olli Juolevi (‘Joel-Levy’), a defenceman for the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, said NHL teams can’t go wrong drafting either forward.

“They’re both my good friends and I think they both have a good charisma,” he said, reflecting on his time spent with his Finnish teammates.

A projected 2016 top-10 NHL Draft pick himself, Juolevi went to London after playing his 2014-15 season with the Jokerit U20 team in Finland.

As the Knights’ first-round selection in the 2015 CHL Import Draft, Juolevi has been a force to be reckoned with on the blue line.

“I’m trying to work hard all the time and I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Juolevi. “How Finnish people are, good in hockey, hard working guys… [I’m] trying to work hard and do the best every day.”

It’s an impressive feat, considering the somewhat challenging transition European players can have when they come to play hockey in North America. Sometimes they’re in need of an adjustment period when they come over to play major junior.

“That was the biggest thing,” said Juolevi. “Where [now] I’m in smaller rinks. I’m pretty happy how things [have gone]. Of course, I need to get stronger, I’m a pretty skinny guy still, but those are things that still need work.”

Juolevi celebrates victory against the Niagara IceDogs in Game Four of the OHL Championship final for the J.Ross Robertson Cup on May 11, at the Meridian Centre in St.Catherines, Ontario. Photo by Getty Images.

Regardless of what’s left to improve on, it appears Juolevi made a near-seamless transition with the Knights, even despite overcoming a severe knee injury he sustained months prior to his arrival in London.

“That was pretty weird because that was my first big injury and I know I had moved down here,” said Juolevi. “Our coaches trusted me and they knew that I was still recovering. I had a good start for a year and everything went fine.”

A good start indeed, the blueliner recorded nine goals and 33 assists for 42 points in 57 games for his OHL season debut, as well as 14 points in 18 post-season games, helping the Knights secure the OHL title.

“[Juolevi] came here and he’s definitely worked hard all year,” said London Knights Owner, President and Head Coach Dale Hunter. “He’s gained a lot of muscle mass and he’s gotten stronger, he can really skate and hook the net, he’s got a lot of confidence going right now.”

The Helsinki native is ranked as the fifth-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and has had success internationally, winning gold at this year’s World Juniors with Finland on home soil, one year after playing for the team in the U18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

“It was great,” Juolevi said of World Juniors. “Especially [it being a] home tournament on my family turf and my friends watching the games so, especially winning the tournament, it was one of the [greatest] things you can achieve as a hockey player.”

With a gold medal already tucked into his back pocket, the Finn and his Knights are also favoured to win the MasterCard Memorial Cup with the Knights in Red Deer, dominating the round-robin portion with a perfect 3-0 record and advancing directly to Sunday’s championship game. A national title would be the ultimate reward, Juolevi said.

Photo by Getty Images.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’ve been with these guys the whole season and worked hard the whole year. I think it’s even a bigger thing because Team Finland [was] tournament champs in a short period of time — but both [accomplishments] are super cool and it’s just great things.”

Juolevi has recorded six assists in London’s three Memorial Cup wins thus far.

At the start of the season, there was a lot of comparison between Juolevi and Sarnia Sting defenceman Jakob Chychrun, who was projected to be the top blueliner in the 2016 Draft.

Although Juolevi has currently edged out his American-born counterpart, he admits that it was not something he focused on during the season, merely just happenstance.

“You can’t think [of] the draft all the time,” said Juolevi. “Of course, you know it’s your draft year, but if you start thinking about it too much it’s going to ruin your game. So do your best and work hard so whatever happens you’re going to be happy with yourself because you worked hard.”

As a result, the 2016 Draft looks to be the best year ever for Finland, a nation that won gold at both the World Junior Championship and World U-18s, and silver at the World Championship this year.

This year The Hockey News has listed eight Finns as top 100 prospects to be selected at this year’s draft. In 2015, there was only one Finn listed — Mikko Rantanen — in the top 40 compared to the four that are listed this year.

But right now, Juolevi isn’t concerned about his position or where his Finnish friends will end up. His focus is purely on the Memorial Cup.

“Every game is going to be a hard game but I think we’re ready to win the whole thing.”

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