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Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY Sports

21 Questions: Who should Jesse Puljujarvi play with?

Welcome to 21 Questions, an off-season series in which we look at some interesting Oilers- and NHL-related questions heading into the 2021 season. 

Jesse Puljujarvi is on his way to Edmonton.

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Just one year ago, it really seemed as though we would never see Puljujarvi in an Oilers uniform again.

After the 2018-19 season, the former No. 4 overall draft pick requested a trade from the organization, seeking a fresh start elsewhere in the league. When Ken Holland didn’t find a worthwhile deal to be made, Puljujarvi returned home to Finland, where he would spend the 2019-20 season playing with Oulun Karpat.

Here we are now. Holland remained patient, Puljujarvi has signed a two-year deal with the Oilers, and now he’s on his way back to town, soon to play in the NHL again for the first time since February of 2019. The young Finn is returning as an older and more mature player, so things should go better this time around.

Now that Puljujarvi is back in the mix, the question becomes… where does he fit in Edmonton’s lineup?

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There seems to be two possibilities here. I think we can safely assume that Kailer Yamamoto will remain on Leon Draisaitl’s right and I think we can also rule out Puljujarvi being put on a check-and-grind fourth line. That would leave either Connor McDavid’s wing or Kyle Turris’ wing as reasonable options for Puljujarvi.

A major issue for Puljujarvi in his first go-around with the Oilers was an unclear role on the team. Was he a top-six scorer? Was he a depth guy? Puljujarvi bounced back and forth from the NHL to the AHL and up and down the lineup, never really finding a clear spot to acclimatize himself to the North American game.

Interestingly enough, though it doesn’t really seem like the two ever played together for an extended period of time, Puljujarvi’s most common linemate among centres between 2016 and 2019 was McDavid. The two played 407:45 together at even strength over the course of three seasons, posting very positive results (479-to-391 shot attempt differential and 24-to-15 goal differential).

The issue here is that McDavid has had success in the past with Zack Kassian on his right. Kassian serves as a nice complement alongside McDavid because he’s good at retrieving the puck and he drives to the net. There’s also the obvious element of having an enforcer on the ice with your star with the McDavid-Kassian duo.

It’s difficult to ignore the success that McDavid and Puljujarvi quietly had together in the past. Puljujarvi boasts the speed and the skill to keep up with McDavid and it does appear as though the two could make a very very duo. But in order to break up the McDavid-Kassian combo, there has to be a certainty that Puljujarvi can hit the ground running and be productive on the top line.

Another situation in which Puljujarvi fared well was when he played on the team’s third line alongside Ryan Strome. The duo played 306:43 together at even strength and outscored opponents 10-to-8. Strome, of course, is gone now, but veteran Kyle Turris was signed this off-season to play a similar role on the team’s third line.

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No matter where the Oilers decide to play Puljujarvi, it’s important this time around to ensure that he has a consistent role and a consistent centre to play with. Having the young Finn bounce around the lineup was part of the reason why Puljujarvi couldn’t establish himself in North America in his first three seasons after being drafted.

Long-term the idea of a McDavid-Puljujarvi duo makes all kinds of sense, but, off the hop, it’s probably best to put him on the team’s third line with Turris. That trio will be more offensively oriented than your traditional third line and they won’t have to go up against the sale difficult competition that a McDavid line will have to face.

The situation alongside Turris offers more of a soft landing for Puljujarvi as he learns to play at the NHL level.