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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse Puljujarvi: Why Is He So Polarizing?

I’ve been consistent in my evaluation of Jesse Puljujarvi since the Oilers made him the fourth overall pick at the 2016 NHL entry draft.

Patience. Patience. Patience.

When he signed his ELC contract in July of 2016, I outlined why fans should have low offensive expectations. He shouldn’t have been in the NHL at 18, but the Oilers started him there and he struggled with one goal in 28 games, before going to the AHL.

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In the summer of 2017, I wrote again about why patience was needed. He had a better season in 2017/2018, scoring 12 goals, but that is when I noticed a significant divide among supporters and detractors. His supporters claimed he was getting shafted with no PP time or weak line mates, while the detractors felt he’d never produce offensively. Fast forward to 2022 and the divide on Puljujarvi remains large.

In the summer of 2018, after his 12-goal season, I outlined why making claims that going to be great or a bust were premature.

In June of 2019, after he scored only four goals in 46 games, and his season ended due to bone spurs in his hips, I felt a year in Europe would be best. Giving him away for nothing wouldn’t have been wise. That turned out to be the case, and Puljujarvi found some confidence in Europe. He returned to the NHL in 2020 and scored 15 goals in 55 games, and added 14 goals in 65 games this past season.

I find the extreme views on the Puljujarvi spectrum represent a small percentage of people. On one side you have those who love Puljujarvi. They state his analytics make him incredibly valuable, while on the other end his detractors believe he adds very little.

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The truth lies in the middle.

Puljujarvi is an NHL player. He works hard. He’s a good skater. He is good on the forecheck. Right now he’s produced like a third-line player, which is fine, but I still think there is a chance he could become a 20-goal man. Not pro-rated, or projections, but an actual 20-goal scorer. Being on pace for a certain amount of points is nice, but actual production matters more.

His decision making in the offensive zone is his biggest weakness right now. He doesn’t make enough plays with the puck. This has been a concern since he came into the league. He mishandles the puck, and fans on shots too often. Yes, his stick has been an issue for years, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see value in his overall game. I believe he can improve in these areas, and that’s why I think those who are frustrated with his lack of finish, to this point, can’t overreact and devalue him.

Likewise, those who love Puljujarvi need to pull back the reigns on suggestions he “makes Connor McDavid better” because of his GF% or xGF%. The outlandish claims that Puljujarvi is terrible are equally as incorrect as saying he is great. He is neither, and that is fine. Very few NHL players are great.

The Edmonton Oilers organization needs to take a step back and exhale before doing a deep analysis on Puljujarvi. I believe many things can be true simultaneously when evaluating Puljujarvi.

It is fair to say he has many positive attributes in his game and the potential to improve, while also recognizing the deficiencies in his decision making and execution.

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“He’s a young hockey player,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft this morning. “I think for him, he is not dissimilar than Ryan McLeod, Evan Bouchard, Stuart Skinner, Dylan Holloway, some of our young guys. That’s where the growth is going to come from and they got really good experience in our playoff run to aid that growth. We have a strong belief in the next wave of young players coming through our organization, and Jesse is one of them.”

Puljujarvi made $1.475 million this past season in the second year of his short two-year deal that carried a cap hit of $1.175m. He needs to be qualified at $1.41m. Giving him a qualifying offer is an easy decision.

“He played really well the first quarter of the season, then it was a real struggle for him,” said GM Ken Holland today. “I think he lost his confidence, then when he lost his confidence he was in the top six, worked his way down to the bottom six. He’s not really young, but he’s relatively young. I got to sort out Jesse.”

Does Holland view Puljujarvi as part of the solution? “That’s what I’ve got to sort out. I talked to him yesterday, I don’t want to divulge, but I talked to him for a good half an hour and I told him I would talk to his agent.”

Holland’s initial response about Puljujarvi’s season was accurate. A great start, but then he struggled offensively in the final 45 games. As for his comment about seeing him as part of the future, I think part of that is negotiating. If he comes out with a rave review, then Puljujarvi’s camp will ask for more.

WHAT SHOULD THEY DO…

Mar 24, 2022; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; San Jose Sharks goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen (34) makes a save on a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi (13) during the third period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve heard and read suggestions the Oilers should trade Puljujarvi. To me the question isn’t should they trade him, it is: What is the return?

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Edmonton isn’t in a position to trade him for a draft pick. That will make them worse. By trading him you aren’t clearing out significant cap space, so it’s not a salary dump. If the Oilers are considering trading him, then it has to be for a player in a similar situation. A player with potential, who has shown he can be rather effective, but has yet to find consistency. The NHL has many players in similar situations, but to make the trade the Oilers need to be certain the player they receive can match Puljujarvi’s production. If he betters it, great, but they don’t have enough organizational depth to just give up on a 24-year-old winger with 259 NHL games of experience.

He just turned 24 in May. He was incorrectly rushed to the NHL and I believe that hampered his development and hurt his confidence. The season in Finland helped, and he was a much more effective player when he returned. I understand it is frustrating when he mishandles a puck, but he also makes many good plays that aren’t on the highlights or easily noticeable. He’s good at knocking down pucks and creating turnovers. He’s good in the two-foot zone inside his own blue line, in the sense he more often than not gets the puck out.

Edmonton needs players on value contracts, and at $1.1m last season he was on a value contract. Suggestions the Oilers should sign him to an extension for $4m isn’t realistic, or wise. He hasn’t produced enough to earn that contract. A short-term deal around $2m is what he should get, and there is a very good chance he’d not only live up to that contract but exceed it. If his camp wants a contract in $3m range, that could make retaining him more challenging.

It doesn’t matter that he was a fourth overall draft pick in 2016. Not all top-five picks become great offensive players. If you only compare him to others drafted around him, then you will be disappointed. He’s a different player. He won’t score goals like Patrik Laine or even Matthew Tkachuk, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a useful player for the Oilers.

The constant debate over Puljujarvi focuses too much on what he isn’t (terrible or great), and should switch to what he is and might be in the future. I wouldn’t overrate him or undervalue him. He’s still young, despite having played parts of five seasons in the NHL. He shouldn’t have been in the NHL at 18, probably not even 19, as very few teenagers have success in the best league in the world.

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The Oilers shouldn’t give up on Puljujarvi. If the trade fetches a player who can play on the team next year and contribute positively, then I can see reasons they’d make a move, but trading him for future assets (draft picks or a prospect) would not be the right move.

Some might not want to hear it, but patience with Puljujarvi still might be the best course of action.

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