January 10 2017 08:00AM
Yesterday the Oilers sent Jesse Puljujarvi down to the AHL, finally owned up the fact that he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL even though they cleared a spot for him and sheltered him as much as possible. But we’ve seen this a lot from the Oilers. It’s basically the exact same thing that they did with Leon Draisaitl and he turned out fine, great even! So what’s the big deal?
Well, when it comes to what the Oilers did with Puljujarvi versus Draisaitl, the similarities are striking. However, there are some key differences. They are the same, but different.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before
The Edmonton Oilers get enamoured with an 18-year-old forward who was blessed with a man’s body and from the moment they draft him they dub him “NHL ready” regardless of any evidence to the contrary. A spot on the team for the position that he plays suddenly becomes open and there is almost no depth there to push the kid, who was taken in the top five of the draft. The player is clearly talented and shows some flashes of what makes him special early. However, he’s not up to the grind of the NHL yet and struggles offensively despite being sheltered. Roughly halfway through the year the team decides that the experiment has failed and demotes him to the next lowest available league.
This is the story of Leon Draisaitl, who was drafted third overall and was deemed NHL ready despite the fact that he himself said he needed another year in Junior. Then GM Craig MacTavish traded Sam Gagner, the team’s de facto 2C, for a winger, and there was nobody else at camp with the skill level to play regular second line minutes. Draisaitl played 37 games and finally the team makes the call to send him to the CHL, where he killed it for the remainder of the year.
Draisaitl scored at a pace that matched some of the best players in the CHL, was named the Western Hockey League playoff MVP and then the Memorial Cup MVP in a losing effort. He came back to the Oilers in the fall and after a brief demotion established himself as an NHL scorer. Now he’s the second best offensive player on the Oilers and everything is coming up Milhouse.
So why is everyone so upset about what Chiarelli and the Oilers did with Jesse Puljujarvi when things worked out so well with Draisaitl?
It’s all about the differences in how they were handled and the options that were available to the Oilers.
One last time for the similarities, though. Here are the two players in some key stats.
2014-2015 Draisaitl: 37GP, 2-7-9, 52.1% CF (first among Forwards), 44.0% OZFO (first among Forwards), Sent to WHL Jan 4th, 2015
2016-2017 Puljujarvi: 28GP, 1-7-8, 53.2% CF (fourth among Forwards), 36.4% OZFO (third among Forwards), Sent to AHL Jan 9th, 2016
Here are the big differences between how the Oilers handled both players:
1) Leon played more hockey
2) The Oilers burned a year of club control with Jesse
3) The Oilers had way more flexibility with Jesse
When Edmonton committed to playing the 18-year-old Leon Draisaitl, they at the very least committed to playing him. He played in 37 of the first 39 games of the year. With Jesse Puljujarvi the Oilers were content to play him sparingly. The Finn appeared in just 28 of the first 42 games of the season. So while Draisaitl saw 95% of the available games, Puljuajrvi saw just 67% of them. Within the games themselves, Draisaitl played nearly a full minute more per game at 12:41 per game versus 11:15 per game for Puljujarvi.
The difference in terms of total playing time between Draisaitl and Puljujarvi over what is essentially the same time span is that Leon played 469:44 NHL minutes between October and early January and Jesse played just 315:07. Maybe not everybody sees that as a lot, but 154 and a half minutes in the NHL based on his TOI average is the equivalent of 13 and a half games for Puljujarvi. I think it’s significantly fewer minutes for the big Finn who had even less experience playing in North American rinks than Draisaitl did at the same age.
We’re talking about playing time for the youngest player in the NHL this year. Hard to argue this was best for his development.
The biggest difference between how these two young forwards were handled, though, was with regards to the 40 game question. Both players burned the first year of their entry-level contracts after they played their 10th games, but with Leon Draisaitl the club sent him down to the WHL the morning before the team’s 40th game. Even though Draisiatl had only played in 37 games, being on the roster for 40 games would have meant that he had accrued one NHL season played and the clock would begin ticking on when he reaches free agency.
Draisaitl was sent to the WHL before the 40th game so he did not accrue the season. Instead of becoming a UFA at 25, Draisaitl cannot become a UFA until 26 years of age. Club control has now and will always mean money saved on contract negotiations. Every year “bought” of free agency makes potential deals cost more money. Let’s not forget the position the Oilers were in when Sam Gagner was going to become the league’s youngest UFA. The team was leveraged into signing a contract it almost immediately regretted. Had they another year of club control, that could have been avoided.
Every advantage matters.
With Puljujarvi, the Oilers played him in 28 games but didn’t send him down to the AHL until the 42nd game of the season. Jesse Puljujarvi’s countdown to UFA status has begun. This is a team that will need every advantage possible to retain players for as little on the cap is possible because we know it is a certainty that Connor McDavid will be able to command double digits if he wants it. Every single dollar saved will matter for the Oilers. In this case, the Oilers gave an asset the most powerful bargaining chip it could have to use against them. It’s a ticking time bomb and we can’t possibly know its ramifications for years.
Why is this so frustrating?
This is maddening because it was avoidable. One of the biggest differences between Draisaitl and Puljujarvi is which leagues they were drafted out of. By virtue of being drafted from the CHL, Draisaitl was subject to the transfer agreement between the CHL and NHL. Long story short with him, it was either all NHL or no NHL. Once a player is sent down they can't come back up.
By being drafted out of Europe, Puljujarvi is under no such limitations. Jesse Puljujarvi can be sent to the AHL at any time and returned to the NHL whenever his team wants. In addition to this, playing in the AHL would NOT burn a year from his ELC nor burn a year of club control. In other words, Puljujarvi could have played every single game in the AHL this year and his contract would have slid to next year and he couldn’t be a UFA until he was 26 at the earliest.
Jesse Puljujarvi isn't a bust in January 2017 any more than Leon Draisaitl was in January 2015. He could still be the best RW on the team next year and become a game breaking player for the Oilers. The problem for the team now is that if he does do this, then it will cost them more money, quicker. That’s why what has transpired here with Puljujarvi is not the same as what happened with Draisaitl. They played him less and mishandled their asset more, and they did it to themselves when they had other options.
You might not care about that now. You might think highlighting the differences is splitting hairs. But, in a few years when Chiarelli has to find ways to keep all his good young players, these decisions will make all the difference in the world.