Unlike last season, the Dec. 1 deadline to sign Group 2 Free Agents passed by without much fanfare.
This time last year, everyone’s eyes were on whether or not rookie general manager Kyle Dubas could get a contract finished with William Nylander as the talented young Swede’s holdout lasted the first two months of the season. They would end up reaching a deal just minutes before the deadline.
That won’t be the case this year, as the two somewhat more low-profile holdouts did not reach contracts with their respective clubs. Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi and Dallas’ Julius Honka, two Finns who were former first-round draft picks that have yet to establish themselves in the league, will not play in the NHL this season.
So, what happens now?
In the case of Puljujarvi, this really isn’t a surprise at all. Puljujarvi explicitly stated back in the summer that he wanted a change of scenery from Edmonton. He stated again recently that he would spend the entirety of the season rebuilding his game in Finland if he wasn’t traded elsewhere.
In order for Puljujarvi to be given a new opportunity in the NHL, general manager Ken Holland has to trade him. The Oilers have his rights until he either plays seven seasons in the NHL or he turns 27 years of age. Throughout this entire process, Holland has always made it clear he was going to take a patient approach and wait to find a deal that benefitted the club. No matter how badly Puljujarvi wants to be with another organization, it won’t happen until Holland finds a deal that’s worthwhile.
Though I would have liked to see Puljujarvi give the Oilers another chance this season, this isn’t the end of the world.
It’s important to remember that while it feels like ages ago that the Oilers drafted Puljujarvi fourth overall, he’s still only 21 years old. Players from his draft year that played Major Junior are just now eligible for their second professional season in the AHL. A handful of top picks from that draft, like Olli Juolevi, Logan Brown, Michael McLeod, and Jake Bean, haven’t yet established themselves in the NHL, and I wouldn’t call them busts quite yet.
I think it made sense for him to give the team another shot with a new, player-friendly coach in Dave Tippett and the whole new organizational atmosphere under Ken Holland. He would have likely had a nice chance to play in the top-six alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and James Neal and maybe it would have worked out.
But, ultimately, Puljujarvi stood by his choice to spend the year in his home country waiting for his chance to get a change of scenery. Fair enough. As frustrating as it might be for fans of the team, we don’t have the full picture and we won’t know what entirely what went on behind the scenes. At the end of the day, it’s his career and his decision.
Given the fact trades seldom happen at this stage of the season as teams decide whether they’re in buy or sell mode, it was always most likely Puljujarvi would be either a part of a trade deadline deal or an off-season trade. If the Oilers maintain their status as a playoff contender into February, Holland can use Puljujarvi as a chip in a trade to help the team get better in the short-term. Otherwise, he can continue rebuilding his value in Finland for a deal in the off-season.
Last summer, we saw the Sabres trade a former first-round pick in Alexander Nylander to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a good young defenceman in Henri Jokiharju. Nylander was the eighth overall pick in 2016, the same year Puljujarvi was taken fourth overall. If Nylander could net a solid prospect like Jokiharju after a season in which he posted 31 points in his second go-around in the AHL, Puljujarvi should surely be able to warrant a solid return for the Oilers.
What does it all mean?
The deadline for Group 2 Free Agents to sign contracts to play in the NHL this season has come and gone. Jesse Puljujarvi doesn’t have a contract, and, thus, will spend all of 2019-20 playing overseas. Ken Holland has been patient throughout the process, ensuring he gets something worthwhile in return for the disgruntled young Finn.
It isn’t surprising we didn’t see Puljujarvi ink a new deal as his priority is to find a change of scenery to re-start his NHL career. It also isn’t surprising we haven’t seen a trade made between the Oilers and another team at this stage. I imagine we’ll hear Puljujarvi’s name floated out there as the trade deadline approaches and Holland seeks upgrades for Edmonton’s playoff push. Though the former fourth-overall pick hasn’t found his footing, he’s still an interesting and valuable prospect to other teams.
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