About two years ago, Jesse Puljujarvi signed a one-year contract with Oulun Kärpät of the Finnish Liiga for the entirety of the 2019-20 season. At that point in time, it seemed like Puljujarvi would never wear orange and blue again. Numerous people began labeling him as a “bust” and stating that it was a poor choice to select him 4th overall in the 2016 draft.
Fast-forward to today, and Puljujarvi is projected as Edmonton’s top RW and has spent considerable time besides Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. There’s also been speculation about the possibility that he could hit the 30 goal mark.
On Oilers Now (during the October 6 show with insider John Shannon, at the 2:43 timestamp), when discussing how Puljujarvi is beginning to look like an impact player, host Bob Stauffer asked John Shannon if he saw this coming or not. Shannon responded with, “If anybody does, they’re lying.”
Advertisement
Ad
Many people feel that 2021 was the year that Puljujarvi finally earned his place in the top 6. They perceive him as a completely different player from what he was two years ago, and that he would never have been ready for a higher role back then.
But how true is this notion? Was the former 4th overall pick developing into a top 6 winger this surprising and unlikely? 
In this piece, I’ll be diving into why I believe that the potential and promise with Puljujarvi were always there, and how a large factor for his struggles in prior seasons was more of a result of poor deployment rather than poor play.
*All stats are via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Puljujarvi has always shown chemistry beside Connor McDavid, even before 2021

Even dating back to the 2017-18 season, Puljujarvi excelled when he was given a chance to play beside McDavid. With Puljujarvi and McDavid on the ice together, the Oilers controlled 63% of the goals, 59% of the expected goals, and 61% of the high danger chances.
Advertisement
Ad
Sure, you could make the valid argument that any player’s stats would escalate when playing shotgun with the best player in the world, and this is the case with Puljujarvi. His numbers were obviously superior when alongside McDavid as opposed to without him. But the impressive thing to note here is that it also went the other way around; McDavid’s numbers improved when Puljujarvi was on the ice.

One of the primary reasons McDavid performs so well with him is due to how Puljujarvi has always been an intelligent defensive player and excels in disrupting plays. McDavid benefits quite a lot from Puljujarvi helping to cover up his defensive mistakes, alongside his tenacious forechecking and constant engagement in puck battles.
The duo spent a bit over 400 minutes together from 2016-2019, with most of their time in 17-18 alongside Milan Lucic. That trio was dominant in almost every aspect when they played together, as they were the top line during Edmonton’s only four-game winning streak that season. It was confusing as to why that line didn’t sustain for a longer period of time.
Advertisement
Ad
Their chemistry was not only evident in their on-ice stats, but also production-wise. Puljujarvi scored at a rate of 1.17 5v5 goals per hour with McDavid that season. With the exception of Draisaitl, that rate of goal-scoring was higher than any player’s scoring rate with McDavid that year and in the past two years (for players with a minimum of 200 minutes with McDavid). This includes Zack Kassian and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1.1 and 0.6 goals/60 in the past two seasons respectively).
Probably the biggest blemish from Todd McLellan during his tenure in Edmonton was his deployment of Puljujarvi. The chemistry and potential with McDavid were always there.

A rough year plagued by hip injuries but followed by strong play with Karpat

The following year, Puljujarvi never had consistent linemates and was even a healthy scratch at points, until he was assigned to Bakersfield about a week before Todd McLellan was fired. When Ken Hitchcock was hired as interim coach, he desired to recall Puljujarvi and take responsibility for developing him. 
Advertisement
Ad
After his first few games as the head coach, Hitchcock deployed Puljujarvi on the 2nd line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jujhar Khaira, and that line controlled 52% of the expected goals and 51% of the high danger chances. Although Puljujarvi wasn’t notably productive, that trio was pretty solid together, especially on the defensive side. In spite of this, Puljujarvi was still constantly up and down the lineup as the season persisted, and his opportunities with the top 6 continued to decrease.
It was later revealed that Puljujarvi wasn’t always 100% healthy during 18-19 and that he had hip issues. He subsequently underwent hip surgery on both of his hips in February of 2019, missed the remainder of the season, and like stated before, signed with Karpat for the following year.
Advertisement
Ad
Regarding his play the following year in the Finnish league, he was nothing but flat-out dominant. He was extremely productive and was almost on-ice for more than twice the amount of EV goals for than goals against (although his PP production was oddly low).
After that, everyone knows the story pretty well. Puljujarvi signs a two-year deal with Edmonton and obtains an opportunity with Connor McDavid after the first couple of games in the 20-21 season. He stays there for almost the entirety of the rest of the year and proves he’s Edmonton’s top (natural) right-wing. But the funny part about this is that Puljujarvi’s stats with McDavid in 2021, compared to his numbers with McDavid in 17-18, were almost identical. 
In 2021, Puljujarvi’s goals per hour with McDavid was 1.09 (compared to 1.17 in 17-18), and the duo had a 55% goal share and a 55% expected goal share (compared to 62 GF% and 59 xGF% in 17-18).
Advertisement
Ad
The key difference between these two seasons is that Puljujarvi had a larger sample size with McDavid in 2021 and had much of a higher opportunity. If he had that same opportunity a few years back, I think there’s a legitimate chance that he could have had a breakout season back then.

So, what’s his ceiling for this year?

Barring injuries, I think that it’s all but a guarantee that Puljujarvi’s most productive campaign will be this season.
Unlike last year, he won’t begin the season in the bottom 6. Additionally, Puljujarvi’s PDO was exceedingly low in January (in simpler terms, PDO can be seen as a proxy for puck-luck). He was generating scoring chances, but could not finish them at all early on. His production rose as the season went on and as his PDO regressed back to the mean, and I highly doubt Puljujarvi will begin next season again with a low PDO.
Advertisement
Ad
The addition of Zach Hyman should also be a factor in how much he produces, but Tippett will most likely also deploy Draisaitl with 97 and 13 from time to time. I think there’s a legitimate chance that Puljujarvi could hit the 30 goal and/or the 60 point plateaux, especially if he continues to have more power-play time. 

Conclusion

Puljujarvi has had a quite fascinating career so far. It was always premature to consider him a “bust” or give up on him, especially considering how young he was, the hip injuries that impacted his play in 18-19, and how he was consistently misplayed. From 17-18 – 18-19, four of Puljujarvi’s five most common teammates at 5v5 were defencemen; he seldom remained with a consistent set of forward linemates for a lengthy stretch of time. That’s never going to be a comfortable environment for a young, developing player like him. 
Advertisement
Ad
There’s no doubt that he has improved from the player he was two years ago. Puljuarvi’s shot suppression (defensive play-driving) metrics were almost Selke-worthy in 2021; many always knew he was a solid defensive player but I don’t think anyone saw that coming.
However, Puljujarvi emerging as a true top 6 winger should not have been a shock. He always performed well when healthy and given a chance in the top 6, especially beside Connor McDavid. If he got more of an opportunity back then and didn’t have hip issues, I think history would have played out a lot differently. 
I believe that the potential and talent with Puljujarvi were always there, and it’s pleasing to see him unlock this potential and solidify himself as one of Edmonton’s most important players.
Advertisement
Ad
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)