SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are hoping a change of scenery will help turn things around for a former top five draft pick.
On Sunday the Panthers acquired defenseman Olli Juolevi from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for forward Juho Lammikko and defenseman Noah Juulsen.
Juolevi, still just 23 years old, was selected fifth overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft by Vancouver.
“We are excited to welcome another young defenseman like Olli to our organization,” Panthers General Manager Bill Zito said in a statement. “We look forward to Olli developing with our club as he joins our deepening core on the blueline.”
After making his NHL debut during a single game in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubble in Edmonton, Juolevi appeared in 23 games with the Canucks last season.
He also played in 63 games over two seasons with the American League’s Utica Comets, logging 38 points (3-35-38).
Last season during his brief NHL action, Juolevi showed some upside but struggled with his skating technique, particularly while defending rushes, and his positioning in the defensive zone was inconsistent.
Juolevi does possess strong offensive instincts and is quick and decisive with his first pass, and his overall ice vision is average-to-good.
Reports out of Vancouver have been that Juolevi was looking a bit steadier defensively during training camp, but the improvements weren’t enough to keep him off the roster bubble.
Now the left-shooting rearguard will enter a much less pressured environment in South Florida, where he won’t have the looming burden of living up to being a top five pick.
He’ll also benefit from the tutelage and guidance of a Hall of Fame head coach who also happened to play a little defense in the NHL during his younger years.
It wouldn’t be the first time a young defensemen found growth and improvement while playing for Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville, as we’ve seen in Sunrise with guys like MacKenzie Weegar and Gus Forsling.
And not for nothing, but Aaron Ekblad has played the best two years of his career under the watchful eye of Quenneville.
Heading the other direction in the trade are a pair of players who could end up finding ice time with a Canucks team that could use depth both down the middle and at the blue line, particularly on the right side.
“We’re pleased to welcome Noah and Juho to Vancouver,” Canucks GM Jim Benning said in a statement. “We would also like to thank Olli for his years of service with the Canucks organization and we wish him well in his future endeavors.”
Juulsen, who was born and raised in the Vancouver area, cleared waivers earlier this month, so he may end up starting out with the Canucks AHL affiliate in Abbotsford.
Either way, it’s surely a sweet feeling for Juulsen to be traded to his hometown team. It’s kind of thing that probably wasn’t ignored by Zito, who will work kind gestures like that into his business dealings when possible (e.g.: trading Vinnie Hinostroza to his hometown Chicago Blackhawks when he couldn’t crack Florida’s lineup last season).
With Lammikko, Vancouver may have some immediate use for him as a bottom six centerman who provides reliable, tough, two-way shifts.
The Canucks may also use Lammikko on the penalty kill, an area he was often utilized by Quenneville in Florida.
Getting back to Juolevi, it will be interesting to see where he fits in with the Panthers.
An injury suffered by Kevin Connauton during Saturday’s preseason finale left Florida with a potential opening on the Opening Night roster.
Ekblad, Weegar, Forsling, Radko Gudas, Brandon Montour, Markus Nutivaara and Connauton were the seven defensemen expected to make the initial roster.
With Connauton likely to miss a week or two, Florida could end up keeping Juolevi with the big club and assessing him up-close as the number seven d-man.
The trading of Lammikko also provides some relief to the Panthers’ logjam of forwards fighting for spots in the bottom six.
That group includes Frank Vatrano, Joe Thornton, Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist, Mason Marchment, Ryan Lomberg, Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen.
Maxim Mamin would also be part of that group, but he’s been nursing an injury and his status for the start of the season is up in the air. The same would be said for Noel Acciari, but he’s expected to miss significant time with an upper-body injury suffered during Thursday night’s penultimate preseason game in Tampa.
The Panthers will hit the ice Monday morning for a practice at the Ice Den in Coral Springs as Quenneville and his staff begin making their final preparations for Opening Night.
Florida kicks off the season at home against the Pittsburgh Penguins Thursday at 7 p.m.