Opportunity is as much about timing as anything else. That’s why sophomore forward Jesse Puljujarvi is going to be one of the more compelling stories for me when the Edmonton Oilers break training camp for the 2017-18 season. Simply put, I see far more opportunity for Puljujarvi this season than last.
Just as important, the timing is certainly better for Puljujarvi, who was selected fourth overall in the 2016 Entry Draft. He got into just 28 games with the Oilers before being sent to Bakersfield of the AHL with modest totals of 1-7-8 in his first crack at The Show as an 18-year-old. The big Finn responded with good, not great, numbers, with 12-16-28 in 39 games.
Was there opportunity on right wing for Puljujarvi a year ago? Sure. Had RW not been a somewhat shallow position for the Oilers a year ago he probably would have – and should have – started the season in the minors (he was the youngest player in the AHL) and then been given the call if he earned it. The benefit of hindsight tells us he wasn’t ready. No shocker there, given his age and the adjustment to culture and language.
A year later, and with Jordan Eberle out and Ryan Strome in, there is again room on the right side. With a year of pro experience in North America on his resume, I like Puljujarvi’s chances infinitely more this time around than I did last September. While the Oilers are fairly set on the left side with Patrick Maroon, Milan Lucic, Jussi Jokinen and likely Drake Caggiula, things are a little bit more up in the air on the right side with Strome, Anton Slepyshev, Zack Kassian and Puljujarvi in the mix.
It’s a cliché, but patience is part of the process when you’re talking about the vast majority of 18-year-old prospects, even those selected as high in the draft as the six-foot-four, 205-pound Puljujarvi was. You need only look at how few kids break in and make a real ripple at 18. Not many manage it. And it’s not just patience from the organization. It has to come from within, too.
“I met with him a couple times this year and he was very frustrated with his game,” Oilers’ GM Peter Chiarelli said of Puljujarvi. “It’s a tough league the American League . . . he actually had a pretty good year. I think he had 12 goals, he could have had 20 goals. He missed a lot of goals.” Frustrated? Sure. What kid doesn’t want to fill the net and make an impression?
Of course Puljujarvi wanted to be better than a combined 13 goals in 67 NHL and AHL games. Scoring is fun and Puljujarvi’s had plenty of that on his way to the NHL. That’s said, there’s more to the pro game, and that’s what Chiarelli stressed – playing a solid defensive game, taking care of the puck, being smart. “I’m happy with his development, Chiarelli said. “He’s going to be an impact player. Every time he touches the puck in the American League, it pretty much turns into a scoring chance.”
None of us will know how far Puljujarvi has moved along the learning curve until the gate opens again, but he’ll be a year older and a year smarter when it does. He’ll also have an experienced countryman in the veteran Jokinen around to lean on and talk to as his sophomore season unfolds. The bottom line is the opportunity is there and the timing is better. I like his chances.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- You meet a lot of terrific people wandering around NHL rinks as I did for so many years, and I never knew a more decent and dignified man than Bryan Murray, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 74 after a three-year battle with cancer. Murray, who coached and managed in the NHL since 1981, most recently with the Ottawa Senators, will be missed by many, this old scribe included. Godspeed, Bryan.
RECENTLY BY ROBIN BROWNLEE
- Top 100: Connor McDavid
- Top 100: Esa Tikkanen
- Top 100: Ryan Smyth
- How Many?
- At Random: The Wildcard
- Top 100: Doug Weight
- Let Me Say This About That