73
Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Puljujarvi: What Went Wrong?

In just over three years Jesse Puljujarvi went from a highly-touted fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft to signing a one year contract with Karpat in Finland. This is less than ideal for both the Edmonton Oilers and the Puljujarvi.

Make no mistake: this is not normal. How did it happen?

I think it is important to outline exactly what occurred to lead to Puljujarvi and his agent, Markus Letho, wanting a trade out of Edmonton this past June.

Puljujarvi was considered a top prospect by every scouting service and virtually every NHL team when he was selected fourth overall in June of 2016. Most thought he’d go third, but the Columbus Blue Jackets wanted a centre and selected Pierre-Luc Dubois. Many in the hockey community felt the Oilers caught a break when Puljujarvi was available at fourth overall.

Picking him wasn’t a mistake.

How they developed him was.

The Oilers signed him to a three-year ELC on July 13th. It wasn’t surprising to sign a top-pick that quickly. It happens quite often. However, Puljujarvi was not NHL ready at 18. Very few players are. But despite not looking NHL ready in training camp, preseason or early in the NHL season, the Oilers decided he was.

He scored one goal in 28 NHL games. He was a healthy scratch 12 times and after the Oilers’ 40th game of the season, on January 5th in Boston, Puljujarvi was re-assigned to the AHL. The fact they kept him on the roster for the 40th game, despite being a healthy scratch 12 times and going goalless in his final 27 games, proves they had agreed to keep him on the NHL roster past game 40 so he could burn up the first year of his contract.

This was unnecessary. How many other teams are doing this? Mikko Rantanen was a top-ten pick in 2015, and he had a late birthdate. He made his NHL/AHL debut at 19. He only played nine NHL games, and they sent him to the AHL. Not only did he dominate, the Avs also essentially got four years from him on his three-year entry level deal. The first year of his contract slid, due to him being in the NHL for only nine games. So he played one year in the AHL and the next three seasons in the NHL where he scored 38, 84 and 87 points at age 20, 21 and 22.

That is good development and using the CBA rules to your advantage.

The Oilers could have played Puljujarvi in the AHL as a rookie, which would have helped his development, and allowed him to play four years of pro hockey in North America on his three-year ELC.

It was a double mistake, and there has been zero benefit from that decision.

Ken Holland wasn’t here when that decision was made, but Peter Chiarelli wasn’t in Edmonton two years earlier when the Oilers did the exact same thing with Leon Draisaitl, except they sent him back to junior after he produced 2-7-9 in 37 games. Draisaitl, who has emerged as an elite NHL forward, wasn’t a regular in the NHL until 20.

So the Oilers agreement to keep Puljujarvi on the roster to game 40 wasn’t just a Chiarelli decision. It has been an organizational trend. It must stop.

SECOND YEAR…

Puljujarvi started his second season in the AHL. He produced 1-4-5 in ten games. The previous season he produced 12 goals and 28 points in 39 AHL games. I’d say really good numbers for an 18-year-old in the AHL, even though he was producing less to start his second season, but then the Oilers recalled him. Why? I’ve heard rumblings of some agreement, but have never been able to get 100% confirmation there was one between him and the OIlers. Although it would seem plausible if there was. If there was, that is another horrific mistake by the Oilers. They can’t let young players and their agents dictate when they need to be recalled. It should never happen.

Puljujarvi did produce 12-8-20 goals in 65 games the rest of the season. Okay numbers, but he wasn’t a difference maker. Puljujarvi was drafted to be a scorer, and in order to be a scorer you need confidence. You want your offensive players playing a lot and generating a lot of chances. He wasn’t doing that, mainly because he wasn’t ready to be an impact offensive player. Which is fine. Very few are at 19 years of age.

THIRD YEAR…

He started the season on the third line with Ryan Strome. They had solid possession numbers, 57.8 CF%, and they were even (3GF-3GA) at 5×5, despite Strome generating many chances but not finishing. But after seven games Puljujarvi sat out a few games. He drew back in for a few more, but was sent to the AHL. He produced four points in four AHL games. He was smiling. He even got into a dust up. Condors head coach Jay Woodcroft liked Puljujarvi’s play and said, “You could see his confidence grow each game. He was handling the puck better.”

The Oilers should have kept him there, but Todd McLellan was fired and Ken Hitchcock came in and the Oilers recalled him. Hitchcock was going to work with him and help make him a better player. The problem with that reasoning is the NHL isn’t a developmental league. The plan was for Puljujarvi to get comfortable as a third line player. Why? He wasn’t drafted to be that, and because he hadn’t produced at 18 or 19, now he was a checker? The reasoning didn’t make sense.

The best move would have been to keep Puljujarvi in the NHL and let his confidence grow and get back to making offensive plays. He was only 20 years young, and it was going to be the final time the Oilers could keep him in the AHL. This season he would require waivers to go down.

But they didn’t. He was recalled and in the remaining 35 games he produced 3-5-8, was -9 and fired 38 shots. In 15 games he played 10:43 or less. In 14 other games he played 13+ minutes. Young players need to play to develop, and he and the Oilers would have been much better off keeping him in the AHL until his season ended due to him needing hip surgery to shave off bone spurs.

So in his first three NHL seasons, Puljujarvi played 139 games. He averaged 12:28/game and scored 17-20-37. He averaged 46 games, 5.66 goals/year and 12.3 points/year.

The stat line illustrates how horribly the Oilers botched his development. Any suggestion otherwise is simply misguided.

PULJUJARVI’S RESPONSIBILITY…

It is his career, so without question he has some responsibility in how it has unfolded.

He and his agent erred in underestimating the importance of learning English. In his rookie season Puljujarvi did have a once-a-week meeting to learn English. However, that only occurred when the Oilers were in town, and sometimes he didn’t always attend. Not ideal, but how many 18 year olds are always making the right decision? First off, when the Oilers were in town he should have been taking a class or meeting with a teacher every day for an hour. At least on non-game days. Once a week isn’t enough, especially considering he had loads of free time on his hands. Letho should have been more assertive with his client to ensure he was learning English.

Of course the Oilers should have been more on top of him as well. If he skipped a session, he wouldn’t play. Trust me, he’d never skip. These young players are still teenagers, and he was in a new country. It is a massive adjustment. Plus he isn’t the most talkative person to begin with. How much isolation did he feel? Part of development is helping players feel more comfortable.

The other error from Puljujarvi’s camp was going public with their trade request earlier this year. I don’t think it helped them at all. He could have told Ken Holland they’d like a trade quietly. The three month public discussion did nothing to help them.

But, regardless of their errors, what set Puljujarvi down this path of destructive development was the Oilers keeping him in the NHL, despite all the evidence showing he wasn’t ready. I believe Todd McLellan was the one person in the organization who made it clear how he felt. He knew Puljujarvi wasn’t ready. Some want to blame him for how he handled Puljujarvi, but he realized he wasn’t ready to be a top-six forward and the job of a coach is to win and put players in the best position to succeed. Puljujarvi wasn’t strong enough. He was a young kid with a massive frame, but his body wasn’t strong enough to move it around, and through, NHL players.

I hear often how Puljujarvi doesn’t think the game well enough. We saw that, but it is really hard to read the play accurately, or make the right plays, when you have no confidence or the strength to compete in the NHL at 18 or 19. He simply shouldn’t have been here.

Puljujarvi turned 21 in May. Tyler Benson turned 21 in March. He was in the WHL at 18 and 19 and last season he scored 66 points in 68 games in the AHL. Now he will come to training camp at 21 and people are very high on him. If Benson had been placed in the NHL at 18 or 19 he too wouldn’t have succeeded. Does that mean he isn’t smart enough, strong enough or skilled enough to be an NHL player?

Nope. It meant he wasn’t ready at 18, 19 or 20. He might not make the team out of training camp, but opposing scouts, and people with the Oilers organization believe strongly he will be a solid NHL player very soon.

He was a high second round pick, but was developed properly. Puljujarvi was rushed, and in my eyes, not put in the best position to succeed in three consecutive seasons.

Between 2009 and 2016 Jesse Puljujarvi, Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paajarvi were all top-ten picks from the Oilers. All of them were rushed to the NHL, and their careers derailed early. I don’t know for certain how their careers would look if they hadn’t made their pro debut until 20, but when you have three top picks, all of whom were in the NHL at 18 and 19, I’d argue that rushing them clearly hurt them more than it helped them.

WHAT NOW?

Ken Holland has a track record of not rushing players. Some in Detroit were ready earlier (Dylan Larkin), but Holland’s track record suggests we won’t see the Oilers rushing Philip Broberg to the NHL next season when he is 19. And I’d hope Holland doesn’t agree to 40 games in the NHL to burn up the first year of the ELC.

But Holland does have one thing he needs to discover in the Puljujarvi saga. How come a young player has so soured on the organization that he won’t give a new head coach, Dave Tippett, and a new GM, Holland, the opportunity to show things will be different with them in charge?

The easy answer is to say Puljujarvi is in the wrong. But I hope Holland doesn’t think that.

He needs to talk with his players and others still in the organization and find out what happened. Maybe Puljujarvi simply didn’t fit in. But how come? Good organizations make everyone feel welcome and comfortable. A veteran player told me Jesse was a quiet guy and kept to himself a bit. But he also said he worked incredibly hard. He was also putting in the work off the ice and players respect those willing to put in the work. A lack of English likely made it difficult to communicate and fit in with his teammates, but how come that wasn’t addressed? If I’m Holland, I would try to find out what happened.

As for Puljujarvi returning to Edmonton, it seems unlikely. He has an out-clause to return to the NHL before December 1st. Maybe he rediscovers his joy for the game in Finland, plays well and gains confidence. That would increase his trade value. Maybe a renewed confidence and more talks with Holland will convince him to return to Edmonton. It would seem unlikely, but if Puljujarvi goes on to be a solid NHL player I wouldn’t be surprised. The disappointing aspect for Oilers fans is it could have happened here, but the past three years made that much less likely.

Rushing players in Edmonton has occurred for the past 13 seasons with four different general managers and eight different head coaches. It is a trend that needs to stop and Holland is in the position to not only stop it, but build a culture in Edmonton that makes players more willing to stay than leave.

Recently by Jason Gregor:



  • Billy Charlebois

    I agree that the Oilers bear some responsibility for botching his development. I agree with Gregor’s comment that they should not have given in to any demands to keep him in the NHL. However, I think most of this is on the player. The language barrier is a bit of a red herring. First off, if it’s that critical, then take it seriously. Sure the Oilers could have been more assertive in making sure he gets English lessons, but be a pro! His agent should act like a pro too! He knew he was destined to be coming to the NHL for a few years before he was drafted, so he should have been taking English lessons when he was 15.
    I also understand that a language barrier can make it challenging to fit in with the other players, but if you are a good guy, you are a good guy. Players overcome that stuff. Look at Vladdy with the Jays. Apparently, given he uses a translator, his English is negligible, but he sure seems to be doing ok.

  • Billy Charlebois

    Has anybody specifically chatted with Hitchcock about PJ? Hitch was adamant that he wanted JP up so that he could oversee his development, not the AHL coaches. So what happened? Was it the hip injury? It seems to me that the experiment ended fairly quickly. Why?

  • TKB2677

    I disagree a bit with Gregor especially on it not being a mistake for the Oilers to have picked him. Typically if you are a top 5 pick, you are real close to making the NHL and being an impact player. If you go down the list of guys taken in the top 5 over the years, the huge majority of them were impact players either immediately or within a year. The guys who didn’t make the team and contribute immediately usually just either stay in Europe for 1 more (Petterson for the Canucks) or go back to junior for a year (Dubios in JP’s draft year). So how much development does the NHL team do for these guys? Very little. Guys who take 3+ years to develop are usually taken in the lower rounds because they are that far away. So the Oilers shouldn’t have taken JP with the 4th because he was that far away. Plus what guarantee is there that if JP was “properly developed” he would have have turned into the dominate top 6 player a guy taken 4th overall should be? He was a really good player in Junior hockey. GREAT. Lots of guys are really good in junior. The Oilers drafted Pouliot who was Crosby’s winger and he sucked. JP was a massive guy, bigger than a lot of his junior competition and the 3rd guy on a insanely stacked Finnish junior line that had Aho, who’s an 80+ center in NHL and Laine who’s a 35+ goal sniper. I am no expert but when you are the 3rd guy on a line with 2 star players, chances are they are going to make you look good. Case in point, Kassian looks pretty good as a right winger playing with the best player in the world in McDavid and a 50 goal, 100 pt player in Leon. Is Kassian a legit top 6 guy without those 2? Hell freaking no.

    • That's My Point

      Kassian was drafted in ROUND #1, 13th overall, he’s definitely at top 6 player. Also his 76 points in 56 games in junior is twice as much as anything Jesse’s ever done. Don’t make Jesse a goal scorer, he’s NEVER been a goal scorer, unless the INCREDIBLE scoring rate of 13 goals in 50 games in Liiga? (insert sarcasm here)

  • Spaceman Spiff

    Jason…. I’m glad to see you’ve provided some further details on the English-language lessons for JP. I remember seeing an interview with Mats Sundin way back in his draft year (1989) and him apologizing for his English … when, in reality, his English was almost flawless. He said he’d grown up speaking a bit of it on the side, but when it became obvious he’d be drafted sometime, he took efforts to improve it. I think the Oilers were unfairly criticized for not doing lining that up for JP, when really the player (and the agent, who really messed that up) should be taking more personal responsibility for that.

    Otherwise, I really do believe that not sending JP down to the AHL four months after he was drafted was the “TSN Turning Point” for JP and the Oilers. You don’t often get a chance to send the 18-year-olds into the AHL (can’t do it with the college kids or major-junior players).

    But … I swear … I remember reading on this website, or perhaps one of the MSM sites in Edmonton, that the biggest reason JP wasn’t sent down early was because it was NHL-or-nothing for JP and his agent. In other words, he was only coming over to North America in the fall after his draft to play in the NHL and that was it. If the plan before training camp was he was headed to the AHL after camp, regardless of how he played in camp, he wasn’t coming over. Unfortunately, the Oilers had a fairly … ahem … malleable GM at the time who allowed the team to get boxed in, rather than simply saying “OK, enjoy the KHL/Finland. See you in a year” (which a more experienced GM like Holland would have done).

    Yes, JP ended up in the AHL after 40 games in his rookie year, but I think by then both JP and his agent realized he was in over head. He’d underestimated the NHL …. and then, probably, the AHL.

    Don’t get me wrong, the Oilers made the most mistakes with JP and Holland’s been left to try to fix them, if they can be fixed at all. But I’m convinced that the pressure on the Oilers from the agent and the player in the summer of 2016 short-circuited JP’s developmental path from the get-go. A full year in the AHL – heck, a full year back in Finland – in his draft+1 year would have gotten him off to a smoother start. The Oilers caved too easily and the player and the agent pushed too hard.

  • TKB2677

    The question I have and this is not letting the Oilers off the hook at all because they didn’t develop him properly, how much of this falls on the player?

    JP was highly touted so he and his agent knew he would most likely be drafted high and most likely playing hockey in North America at a young age. So being able to speak English to at least some degree is kind of important. They supposedly teach English in Finnish schools so why wasn’t he learning them before he was drafted? Laine could speak some English. Why did he decide to wait until after he was drafted and expect the Oilers to do it for him? Then when he was in Edmonton and the Oilers set up English classes, is there no onus on him to do what he is supposed too? The team seriously has to have a freaking babysitter making sure he does what he is told? How far does that go. I assume they give all their players especially the young guys a plan on things they have to work on, how to eat, etc. I know they do. So if you tell a guy he as an example needs to work on his skating, you give him a list of things to work on and if he doesn’t do it, that’s the teams fault? I don’t buy the excuse “what 18 yr old hasn’t made mistakes”. These aren’t your 18 yr old working at McDonald’s who skip a work day because he was out drinking with his buddies. These are highly trained, highly PAID athlete’s. So the expectation is WAY higher. Most 18 yr olds don’t have a paid agent guiding them. He should KNOW better.