The adage of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” rang true for a lot of AHL call-ups this season, but perhaps none more for than Noah Juulsen. The rookie defender went from missing the first two months of the season to almost immediately becoming the Laval Rocket’s top defensive option. Then, after just 31 games, he was recalled to Montreal where he became a top three option on the blueline in his first game.
That’s quite a whirlwind of movement for a young player in his first professional season and even more so when you consider the nature of both of the teams he suited up for. Laval finished last in the AHL while the Canadiens were a bottom-five team. However, throughout all of that, Juulsen never once looked like he didn’t belong at the NHL level. Even as rookie he stepped in and stepped up in a big way for Claude Julien.
As we covered in his AHL review, Juulsen earned the trust of his head coach Sylvain Lefebvre quickly and became a pillar of the Rocket defence. His ability to play heavy defensive minutes against top competition in all situations earned him a recall to the Canadiens, where he was immediately thrust into a top-four role.
He wasn’t put into a role alongside someone like Jeff Petry or Shea Weber like Victor Mete was. Instead, Juulsen joined the Canadiens and took a spot alongside the struggling Karl Alzner and responded with an outstanding performance, clocking in at 61.67 Corsi-for percentage (CF%) in 5v5 situations and playing nearly three minutes on the penalty kill. In his first NHL game. Overall, he logged just over 17 minutes ice time, being a major positive in possession while playing with a member of the Canadiens defence who had struggled mightily for most of the season.
While his numbers were not as glamorous for the remainder of the year, Julien’s trust in the 21-year-old defender never wavered. He stuck by his developing prospect, letting him play through his errors. In a game against the New York Islanders, rookie phenom Mathew Barzal turned Juulsen inside out for a highlight-reel goal and instead of benching him, Julien played him on the penalty kill and for nearly 20 minutes in all situations during that game. He responded well afterward, as the next game against the Islanders led to Juulsen notching his first NHL goal. He was the third most-used defencemen (including the most utilized on the PK) and posted the best possession numbers at even strength on the entire team. It’s moments like those that help mold young prospects into key NHL pieces, and it’s part of why Juulsen could be staying in the NHL this upcoming year.
Going into next season, it’s likely Juulsen won’t be counted on to play the same heavy minutes with a healthy post-surgery Shea Weber returning, which would bump Jeff Petry back down to the second pairing. While his role won’t be as big, he can still continue his development in the NHL where even though he’ll make mistakes, he’ll be a better player because of it. The Canadiens are a team on the brink of needing a large-scale rebuild, especially if they falter and miss the playoffs once again. Their top two defenders are both over the age of 30, and despite strong play in recent seasons, they’ll eventually need to be replaced. Having an in-house replacement like Juulsen would be a major bonus, especially if he’s adjusted to the speed of the NHL game.
On the flip side, there’s the argument that a young player would be best served to play major minutes in the AHL instead of minimal bottom-pairing minutes in the NHL. Juulsen adjusted to the defensive part of the game very quickly in Laval, becoming their go-to option in almost any situation before he was recalled. The one part he could improve on is his offensive game. He’s shown a willingness to carry the puck and join the rush throughout his rookie season. He can focus on continuing to do that but he could also stand to improve his offensive production going into next year. Whether it be shot selection or reading plays in the offensive zone, Juulsen is capable of more than the meager production he had last year. He has a great slapshot and can distribute the puck well, he just needs to utilize these tools more consistently.
He can also work more on not trying to force plays or doing too much with the puck. The time and space he had in the WHL isn’t the same as the professional leagues. He had a few of those instances this year with the Rocket and playing those major minutes is something that can be worked on with his coaches over the course of the season. Both of these things are not major flaws that make him unworthy of being in the NHL, but they’re small parts of his game that require a bit of improvement to make him the best overall player he can be.
There’s a choice to be made in regards to where Noah Juulsen should play next year and both have their merits. In the AHL, he’s going to get much more ice time. He’ll likely play in all situations once again and he can work on rounding out the flaws that are in his game. In the NHL, he’ll likely have a smaller role but can position himself to learn at the highest level while playing through mistakes like he did the prior season.
So, where do you think Noah Juulsen should play next year?