Noah Juulsen has had clip-and-save moments to savour.
However, the rejuvenated Vancouver Canucks’ defenceman knows they’ve often been few and far between in a roller-coaster career. Too many moments were of the wrong kind. He struggled to find his footing as a first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in 2015 and 23 eventual rookie games.
Then came a waiver claim by the Florida Panthers, a fortuitous trade to return home to Vancouver, constant encouragement from management, unfortunate injuries to Guillaume Brisebois and Carson Soucy, and an opportunity to put his new-found outlook into practise.
Vancouver Canucks at Nashville Predators
Tuesday, 5 p.m., Bridgestone Arena
TV: SN Pacific. Radio: Sportsnet 650
“I’m enjoying every day,” said the Surrey-born and Abbotsford-raised blueliner. “When you’re out of the lineup, it’s hard to stay with it and stay positive, but that was one thing I tried to stick with when I wasn’t playing.”
When Juulsen was part of the trade package that sent the overwhelmed Olli Juolevi to the Panthers in October 2021, the dominoes started falling in the right direction.
“I wasn’t too sure about it (trade),” recalled the 26-year-old Juulsen. “I was younger and R.J. (Abbotsford general manager Ryan Johnson) just told me to go and have fun, and I took that to heart. I went to Abby and just started enjoying hockey and that’s what helped me the most.”
Johnson rationalized the acquisition by knowing there was untapped potential in the 6-foot-2, 200 pound defenceman, who had a 52-point WHL season in Everett, Wash., but a slow transition to the NHL because it demanded consistent play in his own zone.
“R.J. talked to me quite a bit,” added Juulsen. “He said, ‘Look, you haven’t played a whole lot of hockey lately and we know that you have it. You’ve just got to go and find your game.’ He said the game would come back to me.”
And it has.
Now that he’s in the lineup on a nightly basis — Tuesday in Nashville marks his 22nd game this season and 19th consecutive — the results and confidence are beyond encouraging.
A third pairing with veteran Ian Cole has allowed Juulsen to apply tips and timing to defend better, make quicker and crisper passes, and ramp up his physical play. Juulsen is leading club defencemen with 55 hits and also has 29 blocks.
However, it’s improved poise with the puck that’s resonating with the coaching staff. No holding on to pucks too long for panic passes that become turnovers. No safety-valve zone exit plays off of the glass that feed the opposition transition.
“It’s when we get back to our basics and things that make us successful,” stressed Juulsen. “Little plays here and there and just working as a unit. My first few games, I thought I was OK but was then out for awhile (11 straight healthy scratches). Getting back in was just keeping it simple.”
There was a long and effective crisp pass to spring Phil Di Giuseppe on a breakaway earlier this season, and also a drawn penalty by aggressively going behind his net to trigger the transition.
“It has not been a surprise, but he has taken his game to a different level,” said Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. “He’s been great on the PK and his decision-making has been night and day from where it was at the beginning of the year.
“He’s making that quick up (pass) and his breakouts have been better. He listens. He’s a sponge. Good for him.”
Quinn Hughes was paired with Juulsen last season and has a continuing appreciation for his drive to prolong his career.
“He only cares about the team and does all the things necessary to win,” said the Canucks’ captain. “In Colorado (Nov. 22), he took those two blocked shots and you need guys like that in your room. He’s got substance and doesn’t take anything for granted.”
A happy homecoming for Juulsen started with his childhood devotion to the local club. The walls in Juulsen’s childhood bedroom were painted Canucks blue-and-green, and included a poster of his idol Kevin Bieksa.
“I just liked the way he played, obviously, and he was a hard-nosed guy who covered every area and aspect of the game and did it in the right way,” remembered Juulsen.
He never piled up penalty minutes or points like Bieksa, who had a pair of 40-point seasons here, but has delivered blocked shots and heavy bodychecks.
However, all that could have been in jeopardy.
Juulsen suffered a severe injury on Nov. 19, 2018. He was struck twice in the face by a puck against Washington and developed vision-related problems.
“It kind of exploded my face and shattered my bones and I had vision issues for about a year,” recalled Juulsen. “There were times when I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if I was going to play again and what was going on.”
Imagine being 20 years old and thinking a career change might be necessary?
“It was kind of day-by-day and things started to clear and progress slowly,” added Juulsen. “I wasn’t even thinking about much or what now? But I would probably have gone on to be some type of first-responder job. My dad and brother are firefighters.”
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