One of the things that was most impressive about Ken Holland early in his tenure with the Edmonton Oilers was how he handled the Jesse Puljujarvi situation.
For years the overarching theme of the Oilers’ front office was decisions that reeked of panic. This ranged from Kevin Lowe offering the Buffalo Sabres draft picks until the end of time for Thomas Vanek because he needed a big splash all the way to Peter Chiarelli randomly acquiring Brandon Manning and Alex Petrovic in the middle of a lost season.
Holland came into the organization and one of the problems that he inherited was a disgruntled number four overall draft pick who wanted a change of scenery.
Rather than meeting that demand, Holland stood pat and let Puljujarvi, who was a restricted free agent coming off of his entry-level deal at that time, sign a one-year deal to play with Karpat, his childhood club. Notorious for being extremely conservative with prospects in Detroit, it seemed Holland saw the virtue in letting Puljujarvi find his game in Finland, something the Chiarelli Oilers opted not to do when they brought him overseas at 18 years old.
Both the Oilers and Puljujarvi did well in 2019-20. Edmonton was 37-25-9 when the season was paused due to COVID and they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2017 that summer. Puljujarvi finished fourth in Liiga scoring with 53 points across 56 games.
Holland’s patience paid off as Puljujarvi inked a two-year deal in October of 2020 to come back to Edmonton. Over those two seasons, Puljujarvi scored 29 goals and 32 assists across 120 games. That production coupled with Puljujarvi’s strong defensive play made him a very valuable player for the Oilers, especially considering his cheap $1.175 million annual salary.
Here we are now and Holland again has himself a Puljujarvi situation. How will he handle it?
The Oilers are in a bit of a jam as they’re tight to the salary cap ceiling, they need to make tweaks to the team in order to make the next step, and they have a handful of players on expired deals who want to get paid. Among those players is Puljujarvi, a restricted free agent with two more years of team control left before he can hit the open market. Something’s got to budge and not everyone from the 2022 team is going to be back next season.
So, what can we expect from Puljujarvi’s next contract? Is he a player the Oilers are going to invest in long-term or might he wind up a cap casualty? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Looking back at the 2016 draft…
1. TOR – Auston Matthews: Signed a five-year deal with TOR in 2019.
2. WPG – Patrik Laine: Signed a two-year deal with WPG in 2019, traded to CBJ in 2021, signed a one-year deal with CBJ in 2021. Currently RFA.
3. CBJ – Pierre-Luc Dubois: Signed a two-year deal with CBJ in 2020, traded to WPG in 2021. Currently RFA.
4. EDM – Jesse Puljujarvi: Signed a two-year deal with EDM in 2020. Currently RFA.
5. VAN – Olli Juolevi: Signed a one-year deal with VAN in 2021, traded to FLA in 2021, claimed off waivers by DET in 2022. Currently RFA.
6. CGY – Matt Tkachuk: Signed a three-year deal with CGY in 2019. Currently RFA.
7. ARZ – Clayton Keller: Signed an eight-year deal with ARZ in 2019.
8. BUF – Alex Nylander: Traded to CHI in 2019, signed a one-year deal with CHI in 2021, traded to PIT in 2022. Currently RFA.
9. MTL – Mikhail Sergachev: Traded to TBL in 2017, signed a three-year deal with TBL in 2020.
10. COL – Tyson Jost: Signed a one-year deal with COL in 2020, signed a two-year deal with COL in 2021, traded to MIN in 2022.
The early part of the 2016 draft was chaotic and the draft class has remained that way since.
Coming into the draft, there was a pretty clearly unanimous top three that went Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Jesse Puljujarvi. The Maple Leafs took Matthews first overall and Laine then went second to the Jets, as expected, but then the Blue Jackets took the podium at number three at selected Pierre Luc-Dubois.
The fact that a Jarmo Kekalainen, a Finnish general manager, would go off the board rather than selecting Puljujarvi was shocking, and, fair or not, it ultimately raised questions about the player. Regardless, the Oilers unexpectedly had Puljujarvi fall into their lap at number four and they went with him.
Six years later, only four players selected in the top 10 of this draft remain with the team that drafted them, and only two of those players, Matthews and Keller, have inked long-term deals. Laine and Dubois were traded for each other, Jost, Juolevi, and Nylander are change-of-scenery types, and Sergachev was traded by the Habs for Jonathan Drouin one year after the draft. Puljujarvi and Tkachuk are the other two still with their draft team and they’re both currently RFAs.
Being a player who spent his entry-level years in North America, returned to Europe, and then came back to North America for two solid seasons makes Puljujarvi a bit of a unicorn when it comes to drawing comparables. In my mind, despite the fact that they’re wildly different players and got to where they are in very different ways, the best player from this draft to compare to Puljujarvi from a contract sense is Laine.
Laine hit the ground running with a 36-goal rookie season, followed that up with a 44-goal sophomore showing, and looked like a legitimate franchise player. His third season was disappointing and the Jets wound up giving him a two-year bridge deal worth $6.75 million annually. He played one more disappointing year with the Jets and then got traded to Columbus one game into the 2021 season.
After scoring 10 goals and 11 points in 45 games, Laine was given a one-year, show-me deal worth $7.5 million deal by the Blue Jackets. He rebounded with 26 goals and 56 points in 56 games and is now an RFA one year from being eligible to hit the open market.
These players are opposites, as Laine burst on the scene quickly, scored a bunch of goals, and is criticized for having a terrible 200-foot game, while Puljujarvi was slow to find his footing in North America, is applauded for his play away from the puck and underlying numbers, but struggles to score goals. That said, they’re both in the same category of players who have high draft pick pedigree and a lot of talent but haven’t fully established who they are just yet because of a lack of consistency.
It’s reasonable to see Puljujarvi following in the path of Laine, going from a three-year entry-level deal to a two-year bridge deal to a one-year show-me deal, which would also match Edmonton’s situation as a team in a salary cap bind.
Another comparable that offers a lesson…
Looking at Patrik Laine can help provide context for what might happen next with Puljujarvi, but the best comparable for the big Finn comes from the 2013 draft.
The Dallas Stars selected Valeri Nichushkin with the 10th overall pick and he broke into the league with 34 points as an 18-year-old. Two years later, Nichushkin was struggling in the NHL and he wound up signing in the KHL upon the conclusion of his entry-level deal. He had two solid seasons with CSKA Moskva and the Stars brought him back on a two-year deal.
Nichushkin scored 0 goals and 10 points over 57 games and the Stars bought out the second year of his contract.
It’s difficult to defend a player who didn’t score a goal over the course of 57 games but what the Stars missed here was a player with a very strong defensive game, which could be seen in his underlying numbers. Over his entry-level deal, Nichushkin had a 95-to-70 on-ice goal differential, and even in that goalless season, he was among Dallas’ best forwards at suppressing the other team’s offence.
Nichushkin wound up inking a deal with the Avalanche and has since developed into a very good two-way winger. This season, he scored 25 goals and 52 points this year and received multiple Selke Trophy votes for his defensive play. The key here was patience, as Nichushkin scored just 13 and 10 goals in his first two seasons with the Avs but added value through his play without the puck.
There’s a similar thing going on here with Puljujarvi. He has excellent underlying numbers, highlighted by a 55-to-31 on-ice goal differential in 2021-22, but he struggles to capitalize on his chances and put the puck into the back of the net. Still, even if he isn’t scoring goals, Puljujarvi adds value with his defensive zone play, forechecking, and playmaking in the neutral and offensive zone. If the goal-scoring ability ever comes around, Puljujarvi will be a two-way force.
But the Oilers need to be patient. Puljujarvi just turned 24 years old in May and is far from a finished product. If the Oilers opt to move on from him now, another team will very likely wind up capitalizing on their impatience, much like Colorado did when Dallas decided they didn’t want to wait for Nichushkin to sort things out.
Given where Puljujarvi is at as a player and where the Oilers are at in terms of salary cap room, a long-term deal isn’t going to happen in this situation. The most reasonable path forward for both parties would be a one-year, show-me deal. The Oilers get an inexpensive player who’s still under team control when the contract is up and Puljujarvi gets an opportunity to earn a larger contract next summer after spending a year playing for Jay Woodcroft, a coach known for player development.
Holland’s patience in dealing with Puljujarvi back in 2019 was a breath of fresh air for this organization. It’s needed again this summer as the Oilers have a talented but flawed player on the cusp of becoming a force in the NHL.