The Edmonton Oilers drafted Jesse Puljujarvi fourth overall at the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24th in Buffalo. And ever since he was drafted, there have been two vocal sides debating his value as a player.
Both sides were incorrect, despite what they think.
One side had the Edmonton Oilers management led by Peter Chiarelli, who believed Puljujarvi was NHL ready. Despite what we saw on the ice, management couldn’t help themselves and kept him around. Then some fans and media joined in this thinking, believing that Puljujarvi was getting shafted with ice time.
In his first three NHL seasons he played 139 NHL games and 53 in the AHL. Puljujarvi scored 17-20-39 in the NHL and 15-24-39 in the AHL.
Puljujarvi played 1,626 minutes at 5×5 over those three seasons in the NHL, and his most common forward linemates were:
Milan Lucic 669 minutes.
Connor McDavid 407
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 378
Ryan Strome 326
Jujhar Khaira 292
Leon Draisaitl 283
His centre was either McDavid, RNH or Strome for the majority of his time. Quality of teammates wasn’t the issue. Puljujarvi simply wasn’t NHL ready, on or off the ice.
Which is expected, since he was only 18, 19 and 20. Puljujarvi and his agent needed to take ownership of the fact he wasn’t prepared off the ice. He didn’t speak English very well, and didn’t work hard enough at improving it. But that was still a small part, compared to the glaring error of rushing him.
Those on the other side of the Puljujarvi debate made the incredibly premature claims that he was a bust. They would write, tweet or post he didn’t have the skills to be an NHL player. He didn’t think the game well enough. It is virtually impossible to think the game properly when you have no confidence, yet those on this side of debate kept pounding their drums.
However, there was one other possibility.
Three weeks after Puljujarvi was drafted I wrote this article outlining the need for patience. I showed all the young European players who were high picks and how they fared early in their NHL career. I said if he scored 20-25 points as a rookie it would be amazing. He finished with eight in 28 games.
In November of 2017, I wrote another article on patience. At the time, he was in the AHL, where he should have stayed. Again, I outlined how few players, European or North American, are impact players at 19. It is important to remember that at 18 years of age, Leon Draisaitl was undrafted and playing in the WHL, due to a late birthdate. At 19 he played 37 NHL games, and went back to junior. Then at 20 he became a solid, regular NHL player with 51 points. He played three seasons in the WHL getting used to the smaller ice, before being a regular NHLer. He also was fluent in English.
I don’t expect Puljujarvi to win the Hart or Art Ross like Draisaitl, but players need time to develop and some need more. Last night I asked Draisaitl about Puljujarvi, since their situations of not having initial success in the NHL are similar.
“Confidence is everything you need, “said Draisaitl. “You don’t get drafted fourth overall, in a pretty solid draft, if you don’t have skill, you can’t skate, you can’t make plays. That doesn’t happen usually. He has all the tools. Sometimes guys take a little longer, sometimes guys just aren’t ready at 18, 19, 20… and that’s okay, everyone takes their own path. I think he’s really starting to understand how he needs to play to be productive. To be honest with you, the sky’s the limit. He’s big, he’s strong, he can shoot, he can make plays. I could go on and on. We’re pretty happy to have him back, he’s been really good for us.”
Draisaitl also added this about Puljujarvi looking more NHL ready.
“I think it starts off the ice a little bit,” said Draisaitl. “He seems more engaged, obviously (speaking) the language helps a lot. It is impressive how he has come in and been so open with everyone. He looks really comfortable which is great, we need that.”
Puljujarvi’s English is much better, which allows him to communicate with his teammates more and naturally feel more connected to the team. And on the ice he is skating much better. His improved balance is noticeable and he using his large frame to his advantage, either in how he protects the puck or knocks guys off the puck. And he is around the net a lot.
“As you get older, you get the power you need to play in the best league in the world,” said Puljujarvi. “I’m just trying to be a better player every year. Last year I played big minutes in the Finnish league against men and I think that helped me a lot.”
I also asked Puljujarvi about his improved grasp of speaking English and how much that has helped his return to the NHL.
“My English is way better than it was three or four years ago and that has helped me a lot. It is really nice to know the guys like having me back and trying to help the team,” said Puljujarvi.
He has matured in the off-season, he’s had time to fill out his massive frame and move it around efficiently on the ice. But Puljujarvi also noted how he has adjusted his game.
“There isn’t that much room on the smaller ice, so you have to go to the net. I’m a big guy, and right now if I play with Connor and Nuge, one guy has to be at the net and I just need to be strong there and get those loose pucks. I have to play a little bit different game, but I think it is mentally… As you get older you have to change your game a little bit each year,” he said.
Puljujarvi couldn’t have played this way at 18. He wasn’t strong enough or mature enough, like 99% of teenagers, especially those coming from Europe. But not only is he more physically mature, has a better grasp of the language, and his statement about changing his game is a massive positive. Not every offensive player entering the NHL is able to become an offensive star right away. Some can’t handle altering their game, or struggle adapting to not being the go-to guy. The fact Puljujarvi mentioned that, without even being asked, is great.
Puljujarvi endured growing pains, literally. In 2019 he required surgery to remove bone spurs in his hips. He’d only played 46 NHL games that season and scored 4-5-9. He was frustrated and eventually asked for a trade. Ken Holland had only been on the job a short while when Puljujarvi asked for a trade. In June of 2019 the topic of his his trade request and the need for more patience was highlighted again.
Holland had a much different approach than his predecessor. He wasn’t going to rush into a trade and give away a young player. Puljujarvi was only 21, and the vast majority of players aren’t in the NHL at 21. Puljujarvi went to Finland, but his doubters only became more vocal. They disparaged the league he played in or critiqued the goals he scored. They claimed he had quit on the Oilers.
I didn’t understand this reasoning. Puljujarvi had no confidence. Coming back to Edmonton wasn’t magically going to change that. He would have likely kept floundering. He made a tough decision, but it was the right one. Asking for a trade was out of frustration. In an ideal world, he shouldn’t have asked, but in the big picture it wasn’t a big deal. Many players have asked for trades, didn’t get it, and ended up being productive players on the team they wanted out of. His request did have a positive impact though: It allowed him to regain confidence, work on his English and most importantly, have fun playing hockey again.
From day one of training camp this year he looked like an NHL player. He was much stronger and balanced on the ice. But, even now, his biggest supporters need more patience.
Don’t be clamouring for first unit PP time as a must. He is getting some time on the PP, which is great, but most importantly he is playing well at 5×5. However, he needs more time to round out his offensive finish. The great news is he his generating a lot of shots on goal. He has the seventh most shots at 5×5 in the NHL with 18. He is averaging the third most shots/60 among forwards with at least 50 minutes of 5×5 TOI. Only Brendan Gallagher (17.28) and Josh Anderson (15.89) are higher than Puljujarvi’s 14.59 shots/60. But he has yet to score, which is okay. More patience required. The goals will come. But how many and how often remains to be seen. It might take some time for the damn to break, or once he pots one or two it might be a goal-scoring cascade.
As he outlined above, his role on McDavid’s line is to go to the net and create havoc and chaos. I believe his goal and point totals will improve as he gets more comfortable and gains confidence, but don’t expect it right away.
Just enjoy that Puljujarvi is looking like the player many scouts felt he would be four-and-a-half years ago when he was drafted fourth overall. Because it took him longer to get to this point is irrelevant. It isn’t a race to see who gets there fastest. Of course players and organizations want youngsters to find their way as quick as possible, but that often isn’t the case.
What was true in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 is still true today. He wasn’t ready for the NHL then. He wasn’t getting shafted on opportunities. He wasn’t a bust.
There just needed to be patience, and it is starting to pay off.
Enjoy the process as Puljujarvi’s growth in two years will hopefully look much different than what you see now. There is still room for much more growth in his game. Right now I see him as a third line player. Maybe he become a complementary top-six forward. Time will tell.
THIS AND THAT…
The Oilers placed Tyler Ennis on waivers today. He hasn’t done much this season, but this move was made so the Oilers have the flexibility to recall Joakim Nygard, Evan Bouchard or other players from the taxi-squad at any time. If Ennis clears, he could be sent down at any time, similar to Jujhar Khaira, and not require waivers for another 30 days. If Ennis is claimed the Oilers have Nygard to replace him as well as Gaetan Haas close to returning.
Mike Smith has been skating in Edmonton, but is still a ways away from returning. I’m told he suffered a knee injury. Troy Grosenick will be out of isolation and available for Thursday’s game, but he will need some time on the ice before they activate him. You wouldn’t want him dressed, then Koskinen gets banged up, and Grosenick goes in having not been on the ice for at least a few practices. I could see him activated by the weekend when they play Saturday and Sunday.
Haas has been skating hard, but likely won’t be ready this week according to Tippett. He might be ready for the two-game mini-series against Ottawa on January 31st or February 2nd.
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