The NHL isn’t a developmental league. That’s why, unless the current state of his tenure with the Edmonton Oilers changes drastically in a big hurry, Jesse Puljujarvi is better off playing in the AHL with the Bakersfield Condors instead of spinning his wheels here. Speaking of that, Puljujarvi will be a healthy scratch against the Washington Capitals tonight.
In recent weeks, there’s been plenty of noise in the debate about Puljujarvi and what has happened, or hasn’t happened, with him exactly 100 games into his time with the Oilers. I wonder if what’s best for the player at this point in his career and best for the team — it’s far easier said than done to separate the two — sometimes gets blurred in the din.
There are strong opinions right across the spectrum — our comment sections are full of them. At one extreme are fans who think Puljujarvi is getting screwed over by coach Todd McLellan. They make it sound as if McLellan is purposely holding the kid back and cheating him of a fair opportunity because he doesn’t “like” him. “Why does so-and-so get to play with Connor McDavid but Jesse doesn’t? Jesse deserves more opportunity. Why does Jesse have to earn his shot and others don’t?” That kind of thing. It goes on and on.
At the other extreme, there are those who’ve already labelled Puljujarvi a bust who should be dealt away as soon as possible before potential trade partners figure out he’s no good at all and GM Pete Chiarelli can’t get anything for him. That’s ridiculous beyond words of course because we don’t know what a 20-year-old kid with just 100 games on his NHL resume is going to turn out to be, but it’s out there.
Most of the angst, pretty much all of it actually, fuelling the debate surrounding Puljujarvi is based on how badly the Oilers have developed young players in recent years. Given the track record that’s there for everyone to see over multiple regimes, that’s understandable. The thing is, what’s happened up until now doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happens next where Puljujarvi is concerned.
HERE AND NOW
When I look at Puljujarvi, I see a player. He’s big. He skates well. He shows a nose for the net. There’s a lot there to work with. The thing is, he’s so raw. That’s not an indictment of Puljujarvi, it’s the reality. Very, very few players at the age of 20 are complete players without holes in their game. That can make the development curve an exercise in frustration.
Complicating the situation with Puljujarvi is the fact the Oilers need to win hockey games. If Puljujarvi isn’t playing a significant part in making that happen, what’s best for the player can take a back seat. I think we’re seeing that here. McLellan isn’t limiting Puljujarvi’s ice time — he’s averaging 12:28 through seven games this season — because he doesn’t like the kid, he’ doing it because the Oilers need to win games and the coach doesn’t see Puljujarvi playing a big part in that right now. His play hasn’t demanded that McLellan keep throwing him out there.
There’s no sneaking Puljujarvi in under the radar on a powerhouse team with a line-up that can protect him and win at the same time — the Oilers haven’t had that luxury for decades. When McLellan does try to protect him now by playing Puljujarvi on his third line, there are those who say he should be played higher in the line-up to have any chance to succeed and build confidence. I understand the sentiment.
With one goal in seven games, Puljujarvi will be scratched tonight and some fans are going to scream like hell about it. The way I see it, we’re fast approaching the point where the Oilers have to make a call on Puljujarvi. I wonder, has that point has arrived today? If it has, and if Puljujarvi is sent to the AHL, I have no problem with it. I think that’s the right call here and now. It’s one many have argued is overdue.
It would be terrific if Puljujarvi had the confidence of the coaching staff and was tearing it up with the Oilers — producing, getting more ice time and excelling. You don’t think McLellan would be thrilled with that? That would make everyone happy, but that’s not where we’re at. How we got here is one thing and we can debate that and point fingers until we’re blue in the face, but it’s what happens next that matters.
Send Puljujarvi to the AHL where he can develop and grow. That’s the long game. That’s the smart play.