Jesse Puljujarvi turned 20 last month. He has played 93 NHL games — a grand total of 1,184 minutes — and produced 13 goals and 28 points. He hasn’t dominated, far from it, but no one should have expected him to. I realize it is summer time, and maybe the heat is getting to people, but the suggestion Puljujarvi “needs” a breakout year this coming season is grossly premature.
Every player develops at a different pace, and when we evaluate players there are many other factors that should come into play other than where he was drafted and how his production has been through two seasons. It is way too early to suggest he is a bust or the Oilers have ruined his development.
I still don’t believe he should have been in the NHL in his first professional year, albeit for only 28 games, and while I recognize the organization was trying to help him get acclimatized to North America, I think playing in the AHL all season wouldn’t have hurt him. Regardless, I think history tells us it is way too early to suggest he needs to take a major step forward this season.
Let’s look at some other players and how they produced playing in the NHL at 19 years of age.
Puljujarvi played 65 games this past season and produced 12 goals and 20 points. Here are some other players who had similar offensive numbers.
Alex Barkov had 36 points in 71 games.
Sean Monahan produced 34 points in 75 games.
Phil Kessel had 29 points in 70 games.
Jordan Staal had 28 points in 82 games.
Sean Couturier and Milan Lucic each scored 27 points in 77 games.
Ryan O’Reilly had 26 points in 76 games.
Ryan Johansen scored 21 points in 67 games.
Kyle Turris had 20 points in 63 games.
Shane Doan had 17 points in 74 games.
Petr Nedved had 16 points in 61 games.
Ryan Smyth had 11 points in 48 games (lockout shortened season).
Only O’Reilly and Lucic (second rounders) were not top-seven draft picks.
Here is how they did in their 20-year-old season.
Alex Barkov scored 59 points in 66 games.
Sean Monahan produced 62 points in 81 games.
Phil Kessel had 37 points in 82 games.
Jordan Staal had 49 points in 82 games.
Sean Couturier had 15 points in 46 games. He also scored 28 points in 31 AHL games. He never scored more than 39 points until he was 25 years old when he scored 76.
Milan Lucic scored 42 points in 72 games.
Ryan O’Reilly had 55 points in 81 games.
Ryan Johansen scored 12 points in 40 games. He produced 33 points in 40 AHL games. He then scored 63 points at 21.
Kyle Turris played in the AHL scoring 63 points in 76 games. He had 25 points in 65 NHL games at 21 and 29 points in 55 games at 22. When he was 23 he scored 29 pts in 48 games (lockout shortened season) which prorates to 49 points. He finally cracked 50 points when he was 24 years old with 26-32-58.
Shane Doan had 12 points in 63 games. When he was 21 he had 11 points in 33 NHL games and 42 points in 39 AHL games. He had 22 points in 79 games when he was 22. Then he jumped to 26 goals and 51 points when he was 23.
Petr Nedved had 37 points in 77 games.
Ryan Smyth scored 39 goals and 61 points. The next two seasons he produced 33 and 31 points, before scoring 50+ points in ten consecutive seasons.
So five of the players had 45+ points in their 20-year-old season, and Smyth then had two more 30 points seasons before becoming a consistent point producer. Couturier, Turris and Doan, who were all top-seven draft picks, needed multiple seasons before they became consistent NHL point producers.
Maybe Puljujarvi takes a major jump and scores 45+ points, or makes a solid improvement to 30-35 points. Or maybe he still struggles to find consistency. If he has a great year, it doesn’t guarantee he will become a solid point producer, although it will significantly increase his chances, and if he still struggles to find some traction in the NHL that doesn’t mean he or the organization has failed.
Development is not equal for every player. There are many factors to consider, but the positives for Puljujarvi start with is work ethic. He puts in the time to get in shape. For a big man his cardio and conditioning were very good last year. That likely won’t change, and if anything he’ll become even more efficient in those areas. He is going to get stronger, fill out his massive frame and when he does he will be able to use his body size to his advantage during puck battles and protecting the puck in the corners and on the wall. He also has a good shot. He will learn how to get it off quicker, and likely we will see him experiment with different stick lengths and flex. I’d argue his stick was too whippy last year, possibly due to him gaining more strength, and a bit too long.
But remember, NHL players are no different than non-NHL playing young men. They mature at different times. Just look at your group of friends. You likely had a buddy who was physically mature at 18 or 19, while another didn’t fill out until he was 22. Some were more mentally mature and able to live on their own, manage money or avoid doing dumb things, while some took a few more years to figure it out.
The challenge for Puljujarvi is he had to find his way in a new country, learn a new language and compete against mature, experienced men. The elite players like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and others who are able to do it as teenagers are extremely impressive, and rare. We should applaud their ability to produce at such a young age, but we shouldn’t look at players like Puljujarvi and declare they are busts because they didn’t rip up the NHL as a teenager.
Puljujarvi has played a mere 93 games and not even 1,200 minutes of NHL hockey. It is fair to hope he continues to improve, but stating he must take a big jump this year or he is headed for Bustville is premature in my books.
1. Now is not the ideal time for Peter Chiarelli to trade away players who had a less-than-productive year. The list of Oilers who were good last season is pretty short, yet it seems Zack Kassian is one veteran many want to trade away. Kassian wasn’t as assertive physically or emotionally last year as he was in 2017, but I think he is more than capable of finding that tenacity again, rather than think it is gone forever. Kassian has the speed to be a solid bottom six contributor. After taking a few overzealous penalties early in the season, I felt he became less aggressive, and I wonder how much of that had to do with the Oilers dreadful PK. If you know there is a good chance the opposition will score when you’re in the sin bin, it’s understandable why you might become leery of taking a penalty. When you play on the edge, you expect a player to cross the line now and again.
Kassian had seven minor penalties in the first 13 games. Then I felt he tried lost his edge a bit. He wasn’t engaged as often and he only had nine minors in his final 61 games, and five of those came when the Oilers were trailing 4-0 in games. Kassian plays best when he is aggressive. I expect players like him to take the odd aggressive penalty, but the combination of the Oilers tough start, a horrible PK and him taking too many penalties led to him being much more passive. Playing aggressive comes naturally to him, and while he might be a tad pricey, I think when he is on his game he brings a much needed element of emotion. He skates very well, and he and Jujhar Khaira should be able to be an effective fourth line. I’d be leery of trading Kassian away, just to save a little cap space, because I still think a team needs a few players who play with an edge.
2. The deadline to qualify RFAs is less than three weeks away. The Oilers would need to qualify Ryan Strome at $3 million or lose him to free agency. Their other option is to sign him to a contract prior to the QO deadline at less than $3 million. Many teams have done this in the past. The question is: does Strome’s camp believe they have to do it? If they balk at a two-year deal worth $2.5 mill/year, then they can force the Oilers to qualify him at $3 million for one season. If Strome’s camp believes he could sign for $3 million/year as a free agent, they might not agree to multi-year deal at a lower rate. Money is only one factor. Strome knows his role in Edmonton. He would be the 3C and play on the PK, and possibly some second unit PP time. There is also the bonus of playing with McDavid, and history shows the league’s best players usually find a way to get close, or win a Stanley Cup. “I believe many teams would gladly pay him $3 million,” wrote an NHL manager via text this week. “He looked more comfortable as a third line centre this year and depth down the middle is crucial,” he added. I’m interested to see if the Oilers can sign Strome to a lower salary, qualify him at $3 million or risk losing him for nothing.
3. Pending UFA and former Oiler Mark Letestu was on my radio show yesterday and had some really good thoughts on free agency, finding a role and added the following about McDavid.
“It is tough to say he is going to get that much better with him winning scoring title after scoring title, but I’m sure there can be more growth to his game. Maybe he can become a better leader, other than just scoring every night. There are other ways to grow. You look at Sidney Crosby — the comparisons are always there — and Sid doesn’t lead the league in scoring every year, but he still puts up huge numbers and does well in the playoffs. His teams are always in the playoffs and in the hunt every year and he drives it. I think Connor has that ability where he can bring guys along and drive it. He is still so young. He can’t have it all figured out yet (laughs), right? He still has some growth in that sense, but the entertainment value and high lite reel, he is must watch-TV every night. He truly is a special player,” said Letestu.
He also touched on the WOW factor of McDavid through the eyes of a teammate.
“It happened weekly to be honest. You’d turn around and look the coaches or teammates, and smile, ‘I can’t do that. How is that possible?’ I remember the opener, when he flew by everyone and scored. We just kind of looked around at each other and said, “It is too early for that kind of speed. What is going on?” he said. He then added a fun barb.
“He is only 15% on breakaways, he will have to work on that if he wants to win the Rocket,” he laughed.
Do they juice him about that in the dressing room?
“You have to. He is the best at everything, so you have to find something he isn’t good at,” said Letestu.
You can listen to the entire interview here. Letestu gave a very honest assessment of free agency, mainly what players say after signing, but also he shared a funny story about the trade deadline when he was traded from Edmonton to Nashville to Columbus in a very short time span.