The Oilers will play their second-last game of the season tomorrow against the Golden Knights. Jesse Puljujarvi and Jujhar Khaira are sliding into the top six as Leon Draisaitl’s wingers. It’s been an excellent season for Khaira, the third-round pick from 2012, but it’s been a somewhat disappointing season for Puljujarvi, the fourth overall pick from 2016.
That, of course, comes down to expectations. Khaira was an off-the-board pick from the BCHL. Slowly but surely he developed in the minors, worked for ice time in the NHL, and figured out his niche. It seems at this point he has a long-term future with the club. Puljujarvi was slated to go third overall in 2016 behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine after a historically good World Junior showing with Finland as a 17-year-old. But when Jarmo Kekalainen, the Finnish GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, passed on Puljujarvi in favour of Pierre-Luc Dubios from the QMJHL, you couldn’t help but wonder what was up.
Puljujarvi came over to North America as an 18-year-old and immediately cracked the Oilers roster. He scored a goal in the team’s season opener and then didn’t score another one in his next 27 games before being sent down to AHL Bakersfield. He spent the rest of the season with the Condors putting up a very respectable 28 points in 39 games. He didn’t play in with the Oilers during the team’s playoff run. This year, Puljujarvi started the season in the AHL as 2017 first round pick Kailer Yamamoto was given a nine-game cup of coffee instead. Once Yamamoto was returned to the WHL, Puljujarvi came back up. He’s produced 20 points in 63 games. At times, he looks like a beast with a rare combination of size, speed, and skill who could score 30 goals, and at other times, he looks completely lost and overwhelmed.
With top picks from 2016 Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine breaking into the league and looking like perennial all-stars, Matthew Tkachuk, who was chosen behind Puljujarvi, quickly carving out a role as a top-six scorer and agitator with the Flames, and now Dubois scoring 20 goals for the Blue Jackets, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed about Puljujarvi’s slow development. That said, he’s the same age right now as Leon Draisaitl was when he won Memorial Cup MVP in 2015.
Craig Button came on Jason Gregor’s show on TSN 1260 last week and was very blunt in his criticism of the Oilers for the development of the big and skilled yet enigmatic Finn.
“I’ll be very straight forward on this… I thought it was ridiculous to have him over last year in the American Hockey League. I think it’s ridiculous to have him over now and not playing him… I don’t think the Edmonton Oilers have done a real good job of developing Jesse Puljujarvi, and when I watch him play… he looks like his physical strength isn’t quite there, he doesn’t always have his legs underneath him. He can’t assert like he wants to. But you see him at other times, you see the skill, you see the ability to drive and be determined. But when you don’t have confidence in your physical strength, you’re not going to go out there and assert all the time, because you can’t, and you know you can’t. And you’re playing against men and players who are strong and physically developed and mentally and emotionally developed.”
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday question. Where does Puljujarvi fit with the Oilers long-term? You can’t go back and change the past at this point. Whether he should have stayed in Finland in 2016-17 or in the AHL this year and last doesn’t really matter now. What matters now is where he fits with the organization, whether that be as a trade chip, a short-term solution, or as a long-term project. If he is a long-term solution in the organization, how should the team ensure he reaches his potential?
He’s only 19-years-old, but, to me, it’s somewhat concerning that the team hasn’t really bothered trying to create chemistry with him and Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl down the stretch as Puljujarvi has spent a lot of his minutes playing on the third line. Rather than giving Puljujarvi these minutes with the team’s top centres, they’ve been feeding them to Ty Rattie and Pontus Aberg.
The team has holes to fill this summer and they may or may not have time to wait and see if Puljujarvi can ever figure it out in North America, so he possibly could be used as a trade chip. But then again, one of the holes the Oilers have is a big, skilled winger who can put the puck in the net. Isn’t Puljujarvi exactly that?
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