One of the most intriguing players on the Oilers roster heading into next season is Jesse Puljujarvi. The 2016 fourth overall pick will be returning to the NHL after spending a season with Karpat in Finland and the fan base is largely split on what to expect from him as he returns to North America
He posted 24 goals and 29 assists last season in the SM-Liiga, which is a very good league, and followed it up with 10 points in his first 13 games this season. When Puljujarvi decided to spend a year back home in Finland, those who supported him said that this will allow him to mature both on and off the ice while becoming more confident in his game. Those who didn’t like the decision immediately labelled him as a bust.
I certainly wasn’t against Puljujarvi’s decision to leave North America for a season, but I never understood the people who said that this stint in Finland was going to magically turn him into a top-six winger. We still don’t know how his game will translate to the smaller ice surface in North America and we still don’t know if he’ll mesh with one of the Oilers’ skilled forwards.
So, where’s the best spot in the Oilers lineup for Puljujarvi?
There are really two trains of thought here. The first is saying that he needs to start lower down the lineup, gain confidence, and earn his spot in the top six. The second is that if a skilled player like Puljujarvi is going to succeed and if the Oilers want to maximize his potential, they need to put him in positions to succeed and the best way to do that it to play him with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
It would be completely unfair to close the door on Puljujarvi becoming a top-six player this season because there’s no denying that he has the natural talent to be a top-six winger and there is a real chance that he’s a different player than he was last time he was in an Oilers jersey. But I don’t think the Oilers should start him on a line next to Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. I don’t think that would be best for the team or Puljujarvi.
Yes, being on one of those lines means you get to play with the best players on the team but it also means you have to routinely go up against the other team’s best players. By starting Puljujarvi on the third line, they’ll be able to ease him back into things and give him a chance to gain confidence at the NHL level. That’s important.
It’s also worth noting that Ken Holland has done an excellent job building the Oilers’ forward depth this offseason and when you compare the top nine that the team will have next season to the group that Puljujarvi was apart of during the first two years of his career, there’s a big difference.
While he did play over 300 even-strength minutes with both @Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid, he also played over 300 ES minutes with Ryan Strome and close to 600 ES minutes with Milan Lucic. This coming season, even if he’s on the third line, he should have better linemates.
I would assume that he’ll start the year on a line with Kyle Turris and one of Tyler Ennis, @Dominik Kahun or James Neal. I think that’s an upgrade over playing with Strome and Lucic. I know Strome has found success in New York, but he was not the same player when he was in Edmonton and when it comes to producing offence, Ennis and Kahun will help Puljujarvi more than Lucic did.
The last time he was here, if Puljujarvi wasn’t playing in the top six, then he wasn’t being given a good enough chance to succeed and produce offence. I don’t think that’s going to be the case this season.
If you put him in the top six, there’s going to be a lot more pressure on him to play well and he’s going to be facing much tougher competition. Yes, there’s a chance that he could succeed but putting him in that spot early on has some risk.
I will say that I would love to see Puljujarvi get some looks on the powerplay. If he’s matured physically and learned how to use his size in front of the net, I think he would be a really interesting fit on their top powerplay unit. I know that putting him in that spot wouldn’t necessarily be the best way to utilize his shot, but considering the fact that he shoots right, there would still be plenty of chances for him to get into positions around the net where either McDavid or Draisaitl could use him as a quick one-time option.
Having some patience with Puljujarvi will go a long way as well. Yes, he’s likely developed and changed as a player since the last time we saw him in Edmonton but he also hasn’t played an NHL game in well over a year. There will likely be an adjustment period once he starts playing NHL games again.
I still believe there’s a chance that Puljujarvi works his way into the top six this season and scores more than 15 goals, however, that shouldn’t be the expectation. If he can be a semi-consistent source of offence in their bottom this season then both the team and fans should be very happy with that. That’s why I wouldn’t start him in the top six and think the best spot for him would be next to Kyle Turris on the third-line.