After four seasons with the Everett Silvertips and half a year with the Laval Rocket, Noah Juulsen joined the Montreal Canadiens. His repeated strong performances put him on track for a full-time spot with the team, maybe even one in its top four. But another two years passed, and the defenceman’s injuries slowed down his development, playing only 37 games in that time. The organizational landscape shifted.
While Juulsen accumulated misfortunes, newly drafted Habs prospects leapfrogged him. Cale Fleury made the NHL out of camp this year, Josh Brook established himself with the Rocket, and other young defencemen in Europe and in the NCAA emerged. Winning back a full-time NHL spot won’t be easy for the 2015 first-rounder, but the return of the hockey season represents a unique mid-summer opportunity.
The months of inactivity have leveled the playing field. In this new training camp, Juulsen competes against players at a comparable level of physical fitness, teammates who were forced to the sidelines for a prolonged period. He can catch up.
Of course, the defenceman doesn’t have much time to impress, but he can still remind the coaching staff of his capabilities. If anything, this showcase might earn him a spot next season. Time flies, new faces replace old ones, and the mind forgets previous peformances and evaluations. However, Juulsen’s brand of hockey, at its best, is also Claude Julien’s. Fueled by a relatively recent promising game with Laval, the defenceman might just catch the right eye.
Juulsen can bring three elements to a team: physicality, rush defence, and clean transitions. Those talents made his success in Junior, in the AHL, and transferred well to the NHL. In 2018, they earned him the trust of Julien, who used the defenceman on his penalty kill.
To remember exactly how Juulsen influenced games, here are three shifts taken from a game three years ago in Buffalo that illustrate the skills the blue-liner has at his peak form.
He never did make a habit out of rushing the puck up-ice like this. Most of his three-zone carries happened toward the end of his Junior career. But while he plays with more restraint than Mikey Reilly, his partner for that game, he still seizes his opportunities to slash through the opposition when they present themselves.
On that rush, most other rookie blue-liners would have passed laterally or settled for a set drop play, but not Juulsen. He saw the passive formation of the Buffalo Sabres; the five defenders slowly backing off towards their zone, and the available open ice in front of him. After advancing to the neutral zone, he looked for a trail through the forest of sticks.
Defenders tried their best to read his intentions, but he kept the puck at his hip and those defenders guessing. He faked a wide drive by angling slightly to his right to further misdirect, accelerated through the middle, and entered the offensive zone through a gap left by two flatfooted defenders.
Juulsen anticipated and evaded two pokechecks, and once he got to the middle of the slot, hooked the puck to Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Unfortunately, the pass ended up too far forward for the centre to fire a dangerous shot.
In that sequence, the defenceman showed many qualities possessed by the most effective puck-movers. His poise, deception, and agility allowed him to freeze the defence and gain the zone.
Those same qualities also served him defensively. In this second clip (the very next shift of Juulsen in that Buffalo game) the defenceman rushed up-ice with his teammates. He didn’t receive the puck, but his acceleration still allowed him to close his gap with the opposition in case they counter-rushed.
After a net-front battle, the play indeed headed the other way. Three Sabres attacked the pair of Juulsen and Reilly. Seeing his forwards in close backcheck, #58 closed his gap. He lined up his shoulders with the point of his knees and the front of his skates, and sheathed his stick as to not to not reveal its full length.
Backtracking in this strong, centered position, he waited for the opponent to enter his range. When the attacker stepped forward, without ever overextending or placing himself off balance, Juulsen struck. A short fencing motion sent the puck flying against the near boards, and with a timely pivot the defenceman jumped to the wide lane to cut the path of another Sabres player.
What made the prospect an effective defender in transition at the NHL level was his ability to quickly assess the situation — the number of opponents and his backchecking support — and respond with the right dose of aggressiveness. He didn’t overreach or make himself vulnerable; he stayed in control. Just like in his transition game, when he had the upper hand, he pounced.
One last shift:
At the very end of the first period in this game against Buffalo, Reilly descended to the back wall to fetch the puck. He shoulder-checked for options and connected with his partner. Juulsen sensed a forechecker pressuring him wide, so he turned his back to the opponent, shielded possession, and switched to his backhand to slide a pass to Brendan Gallagher moving in mid-ice. Once again, awareness, confidence, and control.
In his first stint with the Rocket this winter, the qualities of the defenceman began to resurface, but without the usual confidence to back them up. Be it because of the system in place or his own understandable desire to keep things simple, the defenceman limited his offensive and transition displays.
Here are two sequences from this autumn where the defenceman hesitated to make the better play. In the first one, Juulsen descended from the point to make himself threatening, but instead of freezing the defender with a fake shot to create a better shooting lane, he fired the puck at the opposing body. In the second clip, he skated up along the defensive-zone wall with a middle pass option. He could reach it with a precise backhand (like he did in the last clip against Buffalo), but instead he chose to dump the disc up the boards to a covered teammate.
Juulsen can make the better play in those sequences. He showed it before. He has the toolkit and the mind to execute them well.
Fortunately, the defenceman seemed to have some of his assertiveness back in the lone game he played before the break. One play in particular caught my eye. He got the puck at the blue line and three possible play choices presented themselves to him: hammering it back toward the net through multiple bodies, carrying it along the blue line to do the same, or, the boldest alternative, hit a teammate rushing toward the slot from the other side of the ice.
Juulsen located that driving teammate, and with a precise shot-pass that froze the defender, caught him right on the tape.
With some luck in the injury department and work with the development personnel, we will hopefully soon see a Noah Juulsen capable of seizing all of the opportunities offered to him — on the ice but also in the Canadiens’ lineup — and become the steady, effective blue-line presence that all coaches value.