Why Jesse Puljujarvi should be playing in Edmonton’s top six

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
Without a doubt, one of the most polarizing players across the NHL is 24-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi.
At the start of the 2021-22 season, the 2016 fourth-overall pick posted 23 points in 28 games, and the vast majority of the fanbase perceived the Bison King as an impactful and important player moving forward. However, opinions of Puljujarvi drastically changed in the subsequent 37 games, where he posted 13 points. Puljujarvi was initially considered a priority to re-sign in the off-season, but all summer long, he’s been surrounded by constant (and currently still ongoing) trade rumours.
The discourse around Puljujarvi is just one of countless examples of the seemingly eternal debate regarding the usage of analytics in hockey. Numerous fans feel ready to deal Puljujarvi for a second or a third at the first opportunity, while more statistically-inclined fans view him as a much more valuable asset.
With less than a month until opening night, a big question remains; if he doesn’t get traded, where should Jesse Puljujarvi play in Edmonton’s current lineup?
For numerous reasons, I believe Edmonton’s most preferable option is to continue playing him in the top-six.
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Edmonton does not possess six players with superior 5v5 production rates over Puljujarvi

Even without using advanced metrics, I find it difficult to argue that Puljujarvi is currently not deserving of a top-six spot on the roster.
Among Oilers players that played considerable time in the top-six, Puljujarvi ranked third in 5v5 points per hour in 2020-21, and fifth in 5v5 points per hour in 2021-22. Of course, his production rates aren’t exceptional, but he ranks higher than Yamamoto, Nugent-Hopkins, and Foegele at even strength.
Furthermore, in the past five seasons, the league-average second-liner produces roughly ~42-46 points, while Puljujarvi was on pace for ~45 points over 82 GP last season (his production was even higher before his injuries / COVID).
On this roster, that certainly seems like a top-six player in my mind.
Many (which may include the Oilers themselves) project Yamamoto to rank higher on the depth chart, but he’s an inferior producer. Puljujarvi has a higher points-per-game and 5v5 points per 60 in each of the past two seasons. Aside from a stretch of strong production in March, I just don’t see much reasonable justification for Yamamoto to obtain a bigger role.
Not to mention, Edmonton’s top-six players see an increase in their 5v5 production with Puljujarvi on-ice, as opposed to without. With Puljujarvi on-ice, McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH produced 2.9, 3.0 and 3.4 5v5 points per hour, respectively. Without Puljujarvi, they produced 2.4, 2.3 and 1.4 5v5 points per hour, respectively. 
With all of this said, scoring 20+ goals should be the expectation for any winger that plays with McDavid and Draisaitl, and it’s an expectation that Puljujarvi has yet to achieve. He’s a substandard finisher, and this is the primary argument against playing him in the top-six. It’s undeniable that he must improve his puck skills and production.
However, it’s also undeniable that Edmonton does not possess six forwards with better 5v5 production rates over Puljujarvi, despite the flaws in his offensive game. Even without the usage of on-ice analytics, Puljujarvi’s production places him as a top-six winger on Edmonton’s current roster.

Puljujarvi is Edmonton’s best 5v5 defensive forward

There has certainly been debate amongst media and fans alike regarding Puljujarvi’s defensive value. Some say that Puljujarvi cannot be a proficient defensive player because he doesn’t penalty-kill, but this is a flawed argument. 
Firstly, 5v5 defence and PK defence are very different skill sets.
The objective of skater defence is to prevent goals and chances against in any manner possible. At 5v5, some of the most effective ways to suppress goals/chances don’t have to necessarily begin in the defensive zone. Strong defence isn’t just limited to shot blocks, faceoff wins, and fancy highlight-reel plays in the DZ. 
Rather, a significant portion of proficient defence begins in the offensive and neutral zones. If a player consistently maintains possession in the offensive zone, less time is spent in their own zone, equating to fewer amount of goals and chances against. 
Perhaps the best way to defend at even-strength is simply to spend less time defending in the DZ, and by keeping and pinning the puck in the offensive zone for as long as possible. This type of playing style is usually quite subtle and often goes unnoticed by the naked eye, but it will show up in the data. 
Players can impact strong possession in a variety of ways, such as efficiently exiting the DZ, retrieving pucks, winning puck battles, and most notably, forechecking effectively. These are all traits that Puljujarvi excels at.
Puljujarvi is Edmonton’s best forechecker, as his forecheck pressures per hour rank higher than 97% of the NHL. Alongside this, Puljujarvi’s offensive zone takeaways, zone exit, and puck retrieval stats rank well above average as well.
League-wide puck/board battle metrics are unfortunately unavailable to the public. However, in this excellent Sportsnet article about Puljujarvi, it was mentioned that SportLogIQ (a proprietary data company that numerous NHL teams use) placed Puljujarvi in the top-third of the league in offensive zone pucks recovered, rebounds recovered, and puck battle wins
This is the primary explanation for Puljujarvi’s marvellous 5v5 defensive metrics. He does an excellent job at forcing turnovers, retrieving pucks, winning board battles, and keeping the play in the offensive zone for his linemates, resulting in superb possession results.
Last season, Puljujarvi was on-ice for 28 goals against in 930 minutes, equating to 1.8 goals against per 60; out of all NHL forwards that played 900 minutes, only five of them were on-ice for a fewer amount of goals against. 
In 2021-22, the McDavid line allowed 1.5 goals against per hour with Puljujarvi, while they allowed 2.9 goals against per hour without Puljujarvi. 
McDavid is a generational talent and will always produce exceptional offence regardless of his linemates, but it’s a fact that his line performs significantly better at defending goals and chances with Puljujarvi.
Of course, on-ice goals against can be heavily impacted by goaltending, as skaters tend to have minimal impact on on-ice SV%. In numerous cases, a player will have a GA/60 that’s largely influenced by the quality of their goaltending, and it may not be as reflective of their true defensive capabilities.
However, this isn’t really applicable here, as Puljujarvi excels at suppressing both goals and scoring chances. Puljujarvi’s impact on suppressing expected goals (RAPM xGA) ranks higher than 95% of the league’s forwards in the past two seasons.
To further address the argument against Puljujarvi regarding his PK deployment, penalty-killing is heavily influenced by in-zone defence. Players that achieve exceptional 5v5 defensive results via OZ/NZ forechecking will likely not see their play-style translate on the penalty kill. 
Consequently, I find it odd to use short-handed deployment as an argument against a player’s ability to defend and prevent chances at even-strength. Simply put, they’re different areas of the game, and players require different skill sets to succeed in either area. The correlation between a forward’s 5v5 defence and PK defence is exceedingly weak (an R-Value of 0.11).
Just because a player kills penalties, it doesn’t mean they’re a great 5v5 defensive player and vice versa. A player isn’t required to kill penalties to be an effective defensive player at even-strength (although in Puljujarvi’s case, I do feel that he deserves an opportunity on the PK, as his in-zone defensive metrics are quite solid).
On Monday, McDavid mentioned that the team has several offensive weapons, but the focus should be on keeping pucks out of their own net this upcoming season.
No Oilers forward performs a better job at helping the team keep pucks out of their net than Puljujarvi. It’s an exceedingly valuable trait to possess, and playing Puljujarvi more minutes will increase the chances of superior defensive results for the team.

Final Thoughts

May 18, 2022; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (13) shoot the puck against the Calgary Flames during the third period in game one of the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Ryan Rishaug mentioned that it’s still a possibility that Puljujarvi could be moved, stating that a Puljujarvi trade is the most obvious move to clear cap space. I heavily disagree, and Warren Foegele is the much more obvious choice.
Alongside Foegele, Edmonton has an abundance of left-wingers with Kane, Hyman, Holloway, and Janmark all on the roster. Nugent-Hopkins will likely spend considerable time at LW as well. 
On the other hand, Edmonton’s natural RW depth consists of Puljujarvi and Yamamoto. Hyman and Derek Ryan can switch over to RW, but regardless, the team is certainly not as deep at right-wing as they are on left-wing. It makes little sense to trade Puljujarvi, who’s additionally younger and better than Foegele.
If Puljujarvi does stay in Edmonton, he should start the season in the top six.
I understand the argument for Puljujarvi to play on the third line to balance the lineup. A line of Holloway/Foegele – McLeod – Puljujarvi is quite appealing, and they’ll likely spend considerable time together this season. Furthermore, Puljujarvi’s metrics without McDavid and Draisaitl are strong.
Still, considering the question marks regarding Edmonton’s backend and goaltending, I think Edmonton would benefit more from Puljujarvi playing increased minutes in the top-six.
With Puljujarvi on ice, the McDavid line out-scored opponents 35 – 14, while the Draisaitl line out-scored opponents 24 – 15. Without Puljujarvi, McDavid’s line out-scored opponents at an inferior ratio of 39 – 35, while Draisaitl’s line was at 43 – 42. To clarify, these aren’t any complex or advanced metrics; they’re plain, traditional goals for and against.
The top-six performs best with him at 1RW / 2RW, and Edmonton doesn’t possess six superior producers at 5v5. Not to mention, Edmonton’s top-six isn’t anything spectacular defensively, and a player like Puljujarvi will help in that regard.
Puljujarvi certainly isn’t perfect, and he has quite a bit of room to improve, especially in regards to his puck skills and his ability to finish his chances. He has a lot more to prove before being considered a bonafide top-line winger.
However, he remains a very valuable complementary player and the team’s best natural right-wing. Edmonton’s most preferable option should be to continue deploying him alongside McDavid or Draisaitl to start the season.
What are your thoughts? Where do you think Puljujarvi should play in the lineup? Should he start in the top-six, or do you think the team is better suited with him on the third line?
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)


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