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Olli Juolevi getting bigger, but so are the expectations

PENTICTON — Olli Juolevi has bigger things on his mind than winning Young Stars games.

For one, making the Canucks.

Last year, he had no hope. Too frail, they said. He wasn’t strong enough at 180-something pounds, it was explained.

It’s different now. In early July, Vancouver GM Benning boasted that Juolevi had hit 200 pounds.

That’s some bump, especially considering Juolevi’s season ended in late April.

Well, if these games in Penticton show anything, and they may not, getting comfortable lugging around the weight remains a work in progress.

The good news, Juolevi believes he’s strong enough to play in the NHL right now.

“I think I did a good job in the summer, I feel a lot stronger on the ice,” Juolevi said. “I’ve been able to feel stronger in the corners. I’ve done a good job in the corners. There haven’t been a lot of long D-zone times when I was on the ice.

“That shows I’m better there.”

He’s not incorrect. In two Young Stars games, he’s had some nice moments on the boards, in corners and in the offensive zone. It’s the rest of the ice where his results have been, well, mixed.

This isn’t a referendum on the Juolevi draft pick. Not even close. We’re years away from that. But in moments this weekend, he’s struggled and done so pretty spectacularly.

A year ago, Juolevi was on top of everyone, seemingly poking pucks away from oncoming forwards at will and turning those pucks up ice.

Calgary Flames Hunter Smith follows through on a hit to Vancouver Canucks Olli Juolevi during NHL preseason hockey action at the Young Stars Classic held at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.

This weekend, he’s been caught flat-footed, and four times in two games he was beat by forwards who turned him inside out to create high-danger scoring chances against and one goal.

The goal happened in the third period Sunday. Juolevi had position and space until Calgary forward Brett Pollack turnstiled him, scoring the Flames fifth goal on way to a 6-2 win.

“I had just come from the bench and I saw the guy coming at full speed. I knew right away it was going to be tough,” Juolevi said. “I should have realized I needed to back up more and maybe let him shoot in front of me. It’s tough. I was trying to play with a close gap because I know in the NHL you can’t give those guys any room. Sometimes, you don’t realize how fast a guy is and it may lead to a bad read. I’m trying my best.”

Now, this is Penticton and it’s a relatively meaningless, incredibly sloppy tournament, so save any panic over Juolevi’s underwhelming showing.

There is an argument to be made that a systems-less event does suit the more cerebral players like Juolevi and it has merit.

“It’s tough when you don’t know guys, especially when they dump the puck,” Juolevi said. “You really don’t know what the centre and wingers like to do. That’s the biggest thing.

“But you just have to fight through it. It’s the same for everyone.”

You won’t be seeing Juolevi sweat any of this any time soon. In fact, he said he had an extremely effective off-season and he got both stronger and faster,

“It’s how you use your weight and how you use your power,” Juolevi said. “You have to be faster and stronger. It’s just not about putting on weight.

“If you just put on weight, it will slow you down.”

Plus, it hasn’t been all bad.

“In the first game, I played a good defensive game,” Juolevi said. “I was sharp in my zone and I got the puck moving lots of times. (In the second game Sunday), in the second period I had good plays. I was skating the puck a lot and made good passes. That put me in the game and that’s when I played well. That’s what I have to do. Skate all the time.”

Even if the stakes are low, all of this is important, even this early in the hockey season, because Juolevi is so important to this organization.

The Canucks NHL defence is currently below average and so was the one in Penticton Saturday. The baby Canuck defenders were beaten up for 29 shots against in the first two periods. It wasn’t pretty.

Much has been made about the Canucks improved collection of prospects, and rightfully so. But other than Juolevi they really have no solid NHL bets coming up on the blue-line. That reality makes his development as critical as any player in the organization.

It’s why he’s likely going to be playing in Finland this season, which theoretically should prepare him to make a run at the Canucks roster next fall.

The Canucks, by the way, still want him filling out, putting on more size in an effort to get stronger.

“He’s getting closer. It’s amazing with the amount of hockey he’s played over the past couple of years, he really didn’t have a true opportunity to have a full off-season before this year,” Canucks director of player development Ryan Johnson said. “It was of the utmost importance, in my mind, to shut down (after his team was eliminated in April), get him home and let him recharged mentally. You could tell he was burnt out. We told him to get around your family, get around your friends and relax and become a kid again, a little bit.

“When he was ready and recharged, we had him get to the gym and have a true off-season. I know he feels much better. He’s put on some weight. But it’s not good for a player to do it all in a few months. You can’t go from A-to-Z in that kind of time. But he’s certainly made some improvements. His hockey sense and his smarts separate him from most in the game so that is going to give him a chance.”

We’ll have to wait to see that hockey sense in action, probably until the Canucks pre-season begins.

jbotchford@postmedia.com

twitter.com/botchford

NEXT GAME

Monday

Edmonton Oilers vs. Vancouver Canucks

2 p.m., Penticton Events Centre, SN650

 

 

 

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