Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports

Is Jesse Puljujarvi going to be an impact player for the Edmonton Oilers?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 98 RW Jesse Puljujarvi

The standard line is that it has been a frustrating year for Jesse Puljujarvi, and that’s undeniably true. Perspective matters a lot here, though.

One way of looking at Puljujarvi’s season is through the lens of draft position. He was the fourth overall pick in 2016 and was generally regarded, along with Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, as one of three prospects capable of having an immediate NHL impact. That didn’t happen. While Laine and Matthews had brilliant debuts and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk also excelled, Puljujarvi had just one goal and eight points in an abbreviated campaign. Through this lens, Puljujarvi was obviously disappointing,

Another angle on Puljujarvi is Edmonton’s trade of Taylor Hall. Four days before Hall was dealt to New Jersey, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was asked whether the arrival of Puljujarvi opened up more trade possibilities. He confirmed that it did. Following the trade, Chiarelli was asked whether the addition of Puljujarvi had made the deal easier, and he responded that it had:

On Puljujarvi, he’s a really good player and we were fortunate to get them. Columbus had other needs and I can’t speak for them. This happens sometimes. We were fortunate. It did make it easier. It made it easier. You don’t want to say ‘this guy’s filling this guy’s role,’ because he’s a young player and he’s growing and he’s just beginning his career, but it did make it easier.

From a ‘you don’t want to say he’s filling Hall’s role, but…’ perspective, Puljujarvi was also disappointing. Hall scored 22 goals as a rookie, Puljujarvi one; the balance of probability surely lies on the side of the Finn never being Hall’s equal as an offensive player.

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It was also undoubtedly a frustrating year for Puljujarvi on a personal level. He was a healthy scratch early and often for the Oilers before finally, mercifully, being demoted to the AHL. After his AHL campaign ended he went to the World Championships rather than joining Edmonton for the playoff run, and ended up as a semi-regular healthy scratch for Finland. He and KHL forward Miro Aaltonen were the only players on the roster to go pointless, with each doing so over eight games.

Let’s try a different tack, though. Rather than comparing Puljujarvi to his draft peers or past Oilers or looking at the year through the lens of an 18-year-old with heavy expectations of himself, let’s consider it from a developmental perspective. How does the Puljujarvi of 2016-17 compare to the player of previous campaigns?

To answer that question, I use the league translation work done by Gabriel Desjardins and Rob Vollman. These numbers are simple; they’re average points/game totals based on the past performance of players coming from other leagues to the NHL. My preferred approach to the SM-liiga is to average Desjardins’ number (which is older, but based on a larger sample) with Vollman’s (which is newer but based on a smaller sample). For the AHL, I use Vollman’s number for players under 23 years of age (younger players are more likely to retain AHL offence in the majors than older players are). Here are the results:

Morning Coffee: NHLPA nearing tricky full-member vote on Return to Play and Collective Bargaining Agreement
Season League Games Points NHLE (82GP)
2014-15 Liiga 21 11 17
2015-16 Liiga 50 28 18
2016-17 NHL 28 8 23
2016-17 AHL 39 28 37

The first question there is “why did a player with such lousy projected NHL numbers get drafted fourth overall?” The answer lies partially in a dominant performance at international tournaments (he was the MVP for a gold medal-winning Team Finland at the 2016 World Juniors) and partially in the kind of player Puljujarvi is projected to be. In its 2016 Draft Preview, The Hockey News compared Puljujarvi to Laine and two quotes from unnamed scouts stand out in particular:

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  • On defensive play: “Laine wants to go—he puts himself in a position to facilitate offense, not defence. If they’re going to lean one way, Laine is leaning toward offense and Puljujarvi is leaning the other way.”
  • On NHL readiness: “Laine will score more earlier, but Puljujarvi, if he doesn’t score, he’ll still be able to help you.”

Those comments clash a little with what Bakersfield coach Gerry Fleming had to say in January, where he was critical of Puljujarvi’s defensive game, but not a lot. Fleming specifically cited a need for Puljujarvi to move in straight lines and work on stops and starts. This is a common complaint of a North American coach dealing with a European player used to European rink dimensions; the game overseas places more of an emphasis on circling and east-west motion to take advantage of the extra lateral space. Thus it’s fair to read them less as a critique of Puljujarvi’s defensive diligence than as an honest assessment that he has to make some adjustments to his technique.

Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a big shock that Puljujarvi didn’t score a lot; we knew last year that the odds were good that he’d have mediocre totals as a rookie. What we can say is that he seemed to improve as the year went on, and after his work in the AHL late last season he’s probably in a much better position to win a regular NHL job this year than he was last fall. A jump in NHL equivalency from 18 points to 37 points must surely be seen as a success when looked at through a developmental lens

About Jesse...

And while there is still reason to be concerned about Puljujarvi’s overall offensive upside, he does seem capable of delivering in at least one role: as a right-shooting power play triggerman. In 2015-16, 10 of Puljujarvi’s 17 goals came on the power play. His only NHL goal came on the power play. Five of 12 AHL goals came on the power play. He’s arguably over-dependent on the man advantage, but this isn’t like Griffin Reinhart getting a power play push in the AHL last season; Puljujarvi stands a good chance of actually seeing the man advantage as an NHL’er.

It’s tempting—probably too tempting, given their shared nationality—to think back to Jere Lehtinen, the three-time Selke winner in Dallas. More than one-third of Lehtinen’s career goal-scoring came on special teams (where, like Puljujarvi, he was a right-shooting triggerman), and outside of one freak year he never had more than 35 even-strength points in a single season. Yet Lehtinen routinely played heavy minutes and his value to the Stars was undeniable.

A better comparison might be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who like Puljujarvi has a mixed track record as an even-strength weapon but is incredibly useful on the power play. The difference there is that Nugent-Hopkins is a left-shooting playmaker while Puljujarvi is a right-shooting shooter; the former is rendered superfluous by Connor McDavid while the latter is a match made in heaven for him.

Still, it might not be a bad idea to keep offensive expectations to a minimum, at least for now. Chiarelli insisted in May that Puljujarvi is “going to be an impact player,” but even if that’s true it a) may take several years for that to happen and b) a lot of that impact is likely to be on the defensive side of the puck.

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Bottom line: The Puljujarvi selection was always a long-term bet on a complete player, rather than an immediate gamble on an elite scorer. On the whole, 2016-17 should be considered a step in the right direction.

This is the final piece in a series reviewing the 2016-17 Oilers. Write-ups for the entire roster can be considered below.

Previous year-end reviews:

  • 24% body fat

    first of all he is 19,

    second he was not put in a proper position to succeed

    and finally, if this coaching an managment group are so smart why was he sitting in the nhl instead of playing in the AHL. Most likely scenario is he and his agent didnt want to come over this year and play in the ahl. so a deal was cut to play him 40 games up here to pay him better and burn a year towards free agency. No NHL team has a player physically ready for the nhl and drafted so high sitting on the bench or press box. What a stupid decision by both player and team if this is the scenario. If it isnt true than can some one else explain why he wasnt playing in europe or bakersfield. I thought the new management group were suppose to be smart.

    That said, he is on draft plus 1. There is still tonnes of time. Flamers still have hopes for Bennett and he has been useless since drafted.

    • Jonathan Willis

      Not only 19, but a young 19. He doesn’t turn 20 until next May; he’s closer in age to some 2017 draftees than 2016 ones. And I agree entirely that his handling this season was baffling.

      • BringtheFire 2.0

        It’s like us. If you step back a little, Chia hasn’t had the team for that long. Todd hasn’t had the team for that long. It takes time to get everyone in a properly defined role both on the ice and off. There’s a lot riding on Edmonton’s success so I can envision a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so to speak.

        Player usage will improve as time goes on and everyone in management and coaching gets used to each other. It happened for us.

  • 99CupsofCoffey

    It’s like the old regime decided what to do with him as a player last year… kind of puzzling. But he’ll get his confidence and kick some butt by the middle/end of this year.

  • Spydyr

    It made very little sense the team keeping around for so long when he was clearly over his head and struggling. My guess is there was something going on that the general fans where not made aware of. Let the kid get acquainted with the North American pro game for a few months in the AHL. Build some confidence play the powerplay and get heavy minutes.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    Iirc, I think it was PC who said because of coming over from Finland and getting used to the NA games, the team wanted to keep a close eye on him so he wouldn’t feel alone per say. Maybe living alone was his choice not the teams.

    I’m hoping big things for Jesse, but would rather him go down to the Condors and let him develop more, plus nix a few bonuses, while there’s more vet presence with the big club. I only say that because of witnessing the Oilers rush high picks when they should have been sent back down for another year *cough* Nuge, Yak *cough*.

    I do hope 98 surprises me, and he blows the freakin barn doors off and finds chemistry with Connor for the next 9 years.

  • Consultant

    Good article. Considering our contracts and the cap, if he takes an extra year or two (past his entry deal expiring) to find his game the better it is for the Oilers. Do not rush him, hope he spends time in the AHL again, eventually he will be a player. You can’t teach 6’4″ with speed!

  • madjam

    Jesse has elite talent , but needs time to put it all together on smaller ice surface . If he can handle English well this year , expect a major break thru turning into the force many expect he will be . Draisaitl did not exactly do all that well his first try either . I’m with Chia expecting him to be an impact player sooner than later , being as he is barely 19 this season .

  • Anton CP

    Anyhow, Puljujarvi was actually projected as No.2 prior to world junior only behind Matthews so his potential is there. Puljujarvi plays much different style of hockey than his fellow compatriot Laine that he is more of a playmaker than a shooter. Puljujarvi maybe better not plays on McDavid’s wing, he may have a better game if he is playing with Draisaitl on the same line. Puljujarvi is similar to Martin St.Louis but much bigger, it will be interest to see what the line combination will be like for next season.

  • Oil9744

    It’s hard to say how good JP is gonna be mostly because the other guys you mentioned from that Draft class already are some of the top players in the NHL being Matthews and Laine, I think a good comparison is Draisaital, he started off slow as well, he had 9 points in 37 games played in 14-15, but then put in some solid work in the offseason’s and completely sky rocketed his game, JP had 8 points in 28 games played in his first NHL season, I think JP definetly has the tools to be an impact player like Chiarelli says but I guess you never know about draft picks, Yakupov is a prime example of a guy with a bunch of talent but couldn’t get it together in the NHL, I really hope JP doesn’t turn out like that! Imagine we would have gone up 2 spots and drafted Laine to play with Connor though!!?? #winning

    • giddy

      I agree. Draisaitl is definitely a fair comparison (but obviously still completely differing situations) and reason why there is no need to be overly concerned with Pulju. Both in their first year were big bodied and had the tool set required to succeed in the NHL, but struggled with their skating (Drai with speed, Pulju with agility/style) and finding a good rhythm in their game. Being in the minors (albeit WHL) worked wonders for Drai. Lets go ahead and give Pulju more time, and give him a call up or two during the regular season and see how that plays out.

      For all we know, in three or four years this kid could be absolutely running the league while riding shotgun to McDavid. At a young 18, he was listed as 6’4″ 203 lbs. Give him time to become accustomed to his big frame and put some serious muscle on, and watch the **** out. Heck, in a couple years he and Drai could combine to be one helluva hard line to play against.

  • madjam

    I am high on Jesse , and will not be surprised if he puts up points similar to Laine last season . The thing that bothers me is how do the Oilers sign him for coming out of his ELC with a good chance it will/may have to be quite high .

  • Serious Gord

    The annals of hockey history are full of player stories where the transition from youthful amateur to star pro was an uneven and shakey one. There is no reason solid reason to doubt that this kid will deliver on his promise.

    If it takes about 300 pro games for a d man to develop (or not develop) into what he will be for the remainder of his career then perhaps the same rule holds for forwards except the interval is 150 instead of 300.

    If that is the case then pujuljarvi has another two years of ‘probation’

    • Oilerchild77

      Yeah. I think Jokinen is an upgrade over bonehead on the left side on that third line for sure, which is where JP would most likely slot in to start the year should he make the opening night roster.

    • Mitch92

      Jokinen will help Puljujarvi off the ice far more than he will help him on the ice. Communication and mentoring from Jussi will be huge factors in Jesse’s continued development this season. I hope Jesse cements himself in the Oilers top six this season and plays the left point on the powerplay.

  • BorjeSalming-IanTurnbull

    Foot speed is the biggest issue I see. He looks like a speed skater doing his crossovers and the first three strides are laboured.He was guiding why to much. Stop start stop start and a power skating guru will help wonders. I was impressed with the development of Bo Horvat this year. Great shot from the wing.

  • Ginbaby

    If JP is a 50 pt. player with 20G I will be happy. His skill set as Willis suggests could be vital on PP and PK. Not all 4th over all picks are stars. Tkachucks progress this year will be worth noting.

  • TKB2677

    It’s amazing to me how many people want to panic about JP. When he came to the NHL, he was a very young 18. Then you factor in he is European who’s only played the European game which is hugely different than the NHL. Then you factor in he moved all the way across the world to a completely new country, new culture, new food. He has no family, no friends, no one he knows. An 18 yr old moves a couple hours drive from his home to go to college and how often do they come home? For some almost every weekend until they get used to it. JP couldn’t do that. So I bet he was really lonely and home sick. Then you factor in that he didn’t speak the language which is a massive thing to overcome. Just imagine moving across the world to start a new job. You don’t know the country, the culture, the food, you don’t have any family or friends, you know no one and you can’t speak the language. How hard would that be for a mature adult to adjust too let alone a kid?

    I think we all can agree that JP probably should have started in the minors and stay there the whole season. But I believe that the reason he was in the NHL was because it was part of his contract. You often see European’s like him stay over a season or 2 after their draft season, then come to NA. The reason is they can mature but also because they make MORE MONEY. Most of them are playing on the best pro club team in their country. They are making decent money. So if you are an 18 yr old Euro who probably doesn’t have a good shot at sticking in the NHL your first year, why would you want to come over to NA, probably take a pay cut to play in the minors when you can stay in your home country for another year, be comfortable, make a good wage and continue to develop? So I believe that part of JP being in the NHL was for him to make money. They Oilers wanted him to come over ASAP to learn the culture, language and the NA style of hockey. So you throw him the carrot. You tell him he will be up in the NHL for a certain amount of time making NHL money to make up for the difference in what he would be paid at the minors vs in Europe. What it does is it gives the organization a chance to see where he is at. He works with the coaching staff on the transition to the NA game. He also gets on the right track to learn the language and learn the culture. I fully expect him to come to camp way better. He is going to push for a spot. He might make it he might not but at some point this season he will be a full time NHLer contributing.

  • btrain

    Lets consider the following rookie year comparison:
    Leon Draisaitl; 3rd overall draft pick; 37GP; 2G; 7A; 9PTS; .24p/g
    Jesse Puljujarvi; Projected 3rd went 4th; 28GP; 1G; 7A; 8PTS; .28p/g

    I don’t think we have to look outside of the Oilers to find an example of a good case scenario for JP. Obviously Draisaitl was a more proven scorer before coming to the NHL and having played in North America in the WHL for a few years helped him adjust to the game better, but just saying, Draisaitl had equal struggles his 1st year and now look at him. The German Gretzky is getting paid 8.5mill/season 2 years after putting up .24pts/game in his rookie season.

  • Roberto

    JP will be a good player, I have almost no doubts…. All reports say hes an all around player. Big, can skate, good defensively, and can score. He was 18, moving across the world with a new language, and just coming off knee surgery! The worst case I see for him is that he doesn’t become an elite scorer, and the Oilers have a Big, Fast, good defensively 3rd line RW, who fits into the cap. The best case, is McDavid or Drai has a RW for the next 9 years. Give the kid some time. It’s not the DOD anymore where the top picks need to carry the team when they are 18. He’s gonna be fine.

  • TKB2677

    As an Oilers fan I at times find our fan base very frustrating at times. For years many fans and media complained about the Oilers lack of NHL depth, how they rushed the kids and how the organization didn’t let kids develop properly. Fans would call in ripping the organization for them ruining players. Article after article would be written, ripping the Oilers.

    So here they have an extremely young, talented player. For the first time in a decade, the Oilers actually HAVE depth. They don’t have gapping holes. They don’t have to ram an unready kid into the line up and pray he can survive. They can slow play him. Let him development properly like we all wanted to happen. But because this kid isn’t ready to step into the line up immediately and the organization is going to slow ply him, some peopel question him as a player.

    So basically the Oilers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

    • Oil4Ever

      My thoughts exactly! It seems a lot of fans are having trouble leaving the DOD in the rear view mirror. We have something special going on here and some fans just can’t seem to be happy about it. It’s a shame.