This is one part of a player-by-player Year in Review series we’ll be doing over the next couple months as we look back on the 2017-18 Edmonton Oilers season.
2017-18 Edmonton Oilers No. 98: Jesse Puljujarvi
GP: 65, G: 12, A: 8, PTS: 20
It looked like the Oilers got a gift when the Columbus Blue Jackets elected to select Pierre-Luc Dubois with the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft. It allowed the Oilers, who picked at No. 4, to grab big, skilled Finnish winger Jesse Puljujarvi who was coming off a historically-good performance at the World Juniors. That said, there was something ominous about Columbus’ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen opting not to select his highly-touted countryman with the No. 3 pick.
Did Kekalainen know something that everyone else didn’t? Puljujarvi scored 28 points in 50 games in the Finnish Elite League and nine points in 10 games in the playoffs. His best showing, though, was an absurd 17 points in seven games on a loaded, gold medal-winning Finland squad at the World Juniors in Helsinki. Leaving this player on the board was certainly shocking.
Puljujarvi cracked the Oilers as an 18-year-old in 2016-17. He would play 28 games with the team before being sent to the AHL for the rest of the year. Last season, Puljujarvi started the season in the AHL while Kailer Yamamoto was given his nine-game cup of coffee in the NHL. After Yamamoto was returned to the WHL, Puljujarvi came back up and put up 12 goals and 20 points in 65 games. That’s good for a 15-goal pace over an 82-game season, which is pretty solid for a 19-year-old who saw little power play time.
It’s very easy to say that the results for the big, skilled winger have been underwhelming thus far. A lot of this comes down to the fact players taken in the same draft have hit the ground running at the NHL level. Patrik Laine, his triggerman at the World Juniors, is already a bonafide All-Star, and Matthew Tkachuk, taken a couple spots after by the Calgary Flames, buried 24 goals in his sophomore season.
It’s also very, very easy to forget that Puljujarvi just turned 20 years old in May and that all players develop at different rates. For the sake of comparison, when Leon Draisaitl was Puljujarvi’s age, he was playing in the Memorial Cup with the Kelowna Rockets. Draisaitl also had the added benefit of playing two seasons in the WHL to acclimatize himself to the North American game, which Puljujarvi didn’t.
What Puljujarvi is going through isn’t uncommon for European players. For every Patrik Laine that quickly hits the ground running in the NHL, there are multiple European players who take a slightly longer developmental path. Filip Forsberg, likely the best player from that strange 2012 draft, played one post-draft year in Sweden and finally broke out with the Predators in 2014-15. William Nylander spent half his post-draft year in Sweden and the other half in the AHL and then began his second post-draft year in the AHL before breaking out with the Leafs in 2016-17. Mikko Rantanen spent his post-draft year in the AHL in 2015-16 and then broke out in 2017-18 as a 21-year-old. So the European player coming to the NHL and lighting the world on fire like Laine has is the exception, not the rule.
One common theme with those aforementioned players, though, is a slow, predictable development plan. There’s a post-draft year in Europe, and NHL cup of coffee, and steady AHL time. The Oilers haven’t done that with Puljujarvi. Back in March, Craig Button slammed the organization for the way they handled his development:
“I’ll be very straight forward on this… I thought it was ridiculous to have him over last year [2016-17] in the American Hockey League. I think it’s ridiculous to have him over now [2017-18] 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.”
When watching Puljujarvi last season you could clearly see a player who simply wasn’t ready to play in the NHL night in, night out. He showed flashes of brilliance, both as a scorer who could go to the net and finish and as a playmaker who could forecheck and free up the puck, but there wasn’t any consistency behind it. Part of that comes down to what Button mentioned, which is a lack of physical maturity, and another comes down to him bouncing around the lineup a lot. He played his most even strength minutes with Milan Lucic and played at least 100 minutes with all four of Edmonton’s top centres.
What to make of all of this? Yes, the Oilers haven’t really made life easy for Puljujarvi in his development as he was rushed over to North America to bounce around two different levels without a distinct role. No, the damage isn’t irreversible. Sure, Puljujarvi could have been better off with a season in Europe and a full season in the AHL, but regardless, he’s heading into his 20-year-old season with a very good understanding of what it takes to perform at the NHL level. He already shows brilliant flashes, as I mentioned, he plays a very good two-way game for a young player, and, of course, all of the tools are already there to be a player.
It’s difficult to say what the Oilers will get from Puljujarvi next season, but a clear and defined role with consistent linemates could do wonders for a player who hasn’t been given much predictability since being drafted.