Jesse Puljujarvi celebrated his 22nd birthday today. The fourth overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft is still very young, and despite playing last season in Finland, he is still one of only 45 players from the 2016 NHL draft to have played 20+ NHL games thus far. His 139 NHL games are 14th most among his draft class, and they all came when he was 18-20 years of age.
He shouldn’t have been in the NHL at that time, but a year in Finland helped him regain his confidence. He led his team, Karpat, in goals and points with 24-29-53 and he finished fourth in league scoring. It was exactly what he needed to get his career back on track.
But where does he go from here?
Oilers GM Ken Holland told me this morning there is nothing new regarding Puljujarvi. “Not much going on in the hockey world right now. Too many unknowns to have any real conversations. We don’t know when the off-season will be,” text Holland.
Holland is in no rush to trade the young winger just for the sake of making a trade. He has held firm in his stance. If he can make a trade that helps the team, he will, otherwise he won’t. Meanwhile, Puljujarvi and his agent haven’t changed their stance in wanting a trade to another NHL team.
The only potential positive about a June draft for the Oilers, is that Puljujarvi’s value might be higher, due to supply and demand.
There are very few 22 year olds with 139 NHL games played who could be traded in June. The idea of a June draft makes very little sense to me, but when you dig deep enough usually we can find some sort of positive angle.
Puljujarvi is big, he can skate and he’s only 22. He has value in the eyes of some NHL people. How much, is the question.
And the challenge for Holland is that while teams might have more interest in Puljujarvi at a June draft, the odds Holland gets an NHL calibre player in return is low, mainly because teams can’t trade any players who are under contract. A prospect who didn’t play in the AHL/NHL this season and a draft pick would be the best possible return I can see.
An eastern conference scout texted me this about Puljujarvi: “He looked much more comfortable with the puck in Finland. He started making more plays as the season progressed. He can play in the NHL.”
Even when he was young, inexperienced and lacking confidence, he still managed to score 12 goals in 65 games in 2018. I don’t know if he will be a top-line player, but if all he can do is consistently score 15 goals, he is still a top-nine forward in the NHL.
People ripping his production based on playing in Finland are simply uneducated on the quality of play in that league. It isn’t the NHL, but it is very similar to the American Hockey League (on a bigger ice surface). The major question is: can he make similar plays in confined spaces with less time? That is a challenge for many players, and many European players aren’t comfortable in the NHL until they are 22 or 23.
Only nine Finnish players under the age of 21 scored more goals than the 12 Puljujarvi scored when he was 19. That list includes Patrik Laine, Jari Kurri, Tomas Sandstrom, Sebastian Aho, Aleksander Barkov, Tuomo Ruutu, Mikko Rantanen, Mikko Makela and defenceman Hannu Virta.
There is no guarantee Puljujarvi will be as good as any of those forwards, but I believe he can play in the NHL, and ripping him for playing in Finland for a year, possibly another, is perplexing to me. He needed to regain his confidence and feel for the puck. He accomplished that this season.
It doesn’t mean he is without blame in how this situation with the Oilers has unfolded, but I applaud Holland for standing firm. I still think Puljujarvi’s best chance to play in the top-six could be on the Oilers.
After Kailer Yamamoto, they do not have a proven top-six right winger. Zack Kassian was very good in the top six in the 2019 calendar year, but he also has the ability to be an impact player in your bottom six.
And no team will provide Puljujarvi with as talented of a 1-2 centre punch as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But right now he isn’t comfortable playing in Edmonton. If he feels that strongly about it, then I can respect his decision. It is his life, and his career, and he is doing what he thinks is best.
We can debate whether or not he is taking the right path, but since none of us will walk in his footsteps, we are always just guessing on how he feels.
I firmly believe we will see Puljujarvi in the NHL again, but I don’t know when or on which team. His trade value will improve slightly because he will have a low cap hit and he’s young. As the financial landscape of the NHL changes, players with lower cap hits become more valuable.
Puljujarvi was drafted four years ago next month, and it is odd how many have already written him off.
He turned 22 today. He might not live up to the hype and expectations of being a fourth overall pick, but I expect he will be an NHL player again.
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