When Noah Juulsen made his professional debut for the St. John’s IceCaps in the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs, head coach Sylvain Lefebvre praised his composure and talent, making it clear he would be a major piece of the team in Laval the following year. Through rookie camp and into the pre-season, there was plenty to like about Juulsen’s game. He was steady and composed — everything a coach could want in a young player.
Then in his first pre-season game with the Montreal Canadiens, he fractured his foot and spent six weeks on the sideline while the Rocket began their inaugural season. It was a major blow to the Laval blue-line group that sorely needed a defensive presence like Juulsen in their lineup as they continued to allow goals at an alarming rate.
When he finally joined the AHL team at the end of November, he stepped into a top-four role, and by the end of December had firmly established himself as the top defensive option on a nightly basis.
While he was a very capable shot-generator from the back end and able to be a decent scoring option behind Matt Taormina and Éric Gélinas, he didn’t light up the scoreboard in the AHL this year. Six points in 31 games isn’t high production, but Juulsen showed a lot of flashes of what he’s capable of doing, from being an adept puck-mover to unleashing a heavy shot as well.
Noah Juulsen leads the shorthanded rush, and Adam Cracknell feeds Daniel Audette who scores his 11th of the year. pic.twitter.com/auso4WdORY— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) February 15, 2018
When he sees the open lane on the ice, he takes it to get the puck into scoring areas. Even while short-handed, he’s able to lead the rush and join it to try to create some offence as needed. Even when he does jump up into the play, Juulsen has the awareness to get back into position easily and handle his defensive assignments. His willingness to carry the puck does occasionally lead the rookie defender to put himself in a bad position.
Noah Juulsen caught trying to do too much and gets his pocket picked.— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 25, 2018
Dennis Yan finishes the play off to tie the game. pic.twitter.com/eOv0umdWih
In the play above, Juulsen is trying to find an avenue to get the puck out of his own end, and instead of the safe option, he opts to try to take the puck out himself. Unfortunately, two opposing forwards have him locked down, and with one turnover the puck ends up in his net.
This isn’t to say that Juulsen shouldn’t continue to be aggressive with the puck. These are just growing pains that every young player goes through.
To put things into perspective, in the 31 games Juulsen spent in the AHL, he had some of the lowest-quality teammates inthe league by goals-for percentage on a team that ranked among the worst in that stat, while facing a quality of competition that ranked among the top few blue-liners in the AHL.
Out of everyone on the Rocket, the heavy defensive tasks were given almost exclusively to a then 20-year-old rookie defender. These numbers are only taken from even strength situations as well, so they don’t factor in Juulsen’s heavy workload on the penalty kill.
Not only was he given brutally tough minutes to play in, he thrived in them with his zone-entry defence being far and away the best on the Rocket this year. His skating ability and active stick forced opponents to dump the puck in on his side of the ice more often than not, and if they tried to carry it in, Juulsen’s physical game shone as he’s more than capable of landing devastating body checks. Couple this with his smart defensive play and ability to move the puck, and it’s not hard to see why coaches love his game and have praised him plenty since he’s joined the professional ranks.
He more than earned his recall to the NHL after his short time in Laval, and he very much deserved to stay there for the rest of the year. His game is not always going to be flashy — he doesn’t have the agility on his skates that Victor Mete does — but he’s a dependable option. If there’s a comparison to be made, Juulsen would be closer to a Jeff Petry type player; not flashy but able to contribute solidly at both ends of the ice. It’s likely we’ll see him continue to grow in the NHL next year as well.
He is just 21, and there are still some growing pains that are going to happen over the course of his career. That’s just the natural order of things. He’s developing into a reliable NHL-calibre defenceman very quickly, which is great news for the Canadiens who are in desperate need of more NHL defenders in the coming seasons.
With new coaches coming in at both the NHL and AHL level, Juulsen’s development will continue in the right direction, even if his rookie season had its struggles. Despite the ups and downs, his coaches trusted him to play in crucial situations, and with that confidence he is only going to improve as his career progresses.