Back in the Edmonton Oilers lineup after a season away in Finland, Jesse Puljujarvi silenced a lot of critics in a big way with his return in 2020-21. Of that, there is no doubt. After not so long ago wondering if Puljujarvi would ever be a player here, questions about him are different these days. How good might he become?
A lot of Oilers’ fans with raised expectations are awaiting the answer as Puljujarvi, still only 23, tries to build on a season in which he tallied 15-10-25 in 55 games and looked better and more engaged many nights than those numbers indicate. Count coach Dave Tippett, who had a hand in Puljujarvi’s resurgence, among those eagerly waiting to see what comes next.
“At the start of the year last year, he wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Tippett told Jason Gregor and Frank Seravalli on the DFO Rundown this week. “Ken (Holland) and I had spent a lot of time talking to him, but it’s different when you walk into that dressing room with guys who were teammates before and you’re not sure how it’s going to go.
“I give him a ton of credit because he didn’t over-try to fit in. He came in and said, ‘You know what, my play is going to dictate how everybody feels about me.’ The better he played, obviously, he endears himself to his teammates.”
Count me among the many who had doubts about Puljujarvi when he went home after three seasons. I understood the questions about how and with whom Puljujarvi was used in his first go-around, but when a player chooses to go home instead of staying with the team that drafted him into the best league in the world, you sometimes lose them for good.
Instead, Puljujarvi matured and grew his game. When he returned to the Oilers, he was 22, not the teenager who was pressed into playing before he was ready. We’ve seen that movie before. While there’s no question Puljujarvi still has plenty of room for improvement, there’s no doubt he’s an NHL player. How good? We’ll see.
“He was tentative at the start of camp coming in, but as his game grew, he became more comfortable every day,” Tippett said. “I love the guy. He’s so much fun to have on the ice. He’s smiling all the time. You do a drill and he’s competing like crazy.
“He’s laughing. He’s having fun playing out there. Those are the guys you love to coach. As he became more comfortable and started having some success, all the past memories of where it was were behind him. He’s a new player, a new opportunity. He was a real good player for us. Like a really good player.”
The Glendale Arena was standing out in the middle of nowhere when Mike Barnett, former agent for Wayne Gretzky and then the GM of the Phoenix Coyotes, gave Jim Matheson and I a peek at the future. It was 2003 when Barnett showed us a scale model of what would become a billion-dollar development now known as the Westgate Entertainment District.
It was impressive in every way, but it was still in the middle of nowhere compared to America West Arena, which the Coyotes shared with the Phoenix Suns downtown. AWA was a building built for basketball not hockey, but it was close to everything. Zip ahead to today and news the Coyotes are being punted from the facility, now known as the Gila River Arena.
The question now for the Coyotes, who’ve never really seemed settled in the Valley of the Sun when you consider arena moves, changes in ownership, multiple building agreements and lousy attendance, is where will they end up in 2022-23? Back downtown where the Suns still play? North in Quebec City, which has a new building and wants to get back in the NHL game? Houston?
I don’t know the answer to that. The thing about the Coyotes in Arizona is it was always a fun road trip for fans from Edmonton because it provided a quick break from winters in Alberta with direct flights a couple of times a season. Of course, that was before the Vegas Golden Knights arrived. Aside from that fun factor, I never felt like hockey was a good fit in Arizona.
WHILE I’M AT IT
- Where does Cooper Marody fit with the Oilers? Does he fit? Marody, 24 is coming off a terrific season in Bakersfield, but I’m not sure there’s a place for him here to start the season. If you slot Marody at centre, he’s behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl (when he’s not at LW), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (same), Ryan McLeod and Derek Ryan. If you slot Marody at RW, he’s behind Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, Zack Kassian and Josh Archibald.
- Happy belated birthday to Al Hamilton, who blew out 75 candles on the cake Friday. Hamilton, who covered all the hockey bases in this town by playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings as a junior before strapping it on for the Oilers in the WHA (455 games) and the NHL (31 games) as captain, is still heavily involved with the Oilers’ Alumni and in many community initiatives.