2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 98 RW Jesse Puljujarvi

The standard line is that it has been a frustrating year for Jesse Puljujarvi, and that’s undeniably true. Perspective matters a lot here, though.
One way of looking at Puljujarvi’s season is through the lens of draft position. He was the fourth overall pick in 2016 and was generally regarded, along with Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, as one of three prospects capable of having an immediate NHL impact. That didn’t happen. While Laine and Matthews had brilliant debuts and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk also excelled, Puljujarvi had just one goal and eight points in an abbreviated campaign. Through this lens, Puljujarvi was obviously disappointing,
Another angle on Puljujarvi is Edmonton’s trade of Taylor Hall. Four days before Hall was dealt to New Jersey, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was asked whether the arrival of Puljujarvi opened up more trade possibilities. He confirmed that it did. Following the trade, Chiarelli was asked whether the addition of Puljujarvi had made the deal easier, and he responded that it had:
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On Puljujarvi, he’s a really good player and we were fortunate to get them. Columbus had other needs and I can’t speak for them. This happens sometimes. We were fortunate. It did make it easier. It made it easier. You don’t want to say ‘this guy’s filling this guy’s role,’ because he’s a young player and he’s growing and he’s just beginning his career, but it did make it easier.
From a ‘you don’t want to say he’s filling Hall’s role, but…’ perspective, Puljujarvi was also disappointing. Hall scored 22 goals as a rookie, Puljujarvi one; the balance of probability surely lies on the side of the Finn never being Hall’s equal as an offensive player.
It was also undoubtedly a frustrating year for Puljujarvi on a personal level. He was a healthy scratch early and often for the Oilers before finally, mercifully, being demoted to the AHL. After his AHL campaign ended he went to the World Championships rather than joining Edmonton for the playoff run, and ended up as a semi-regular healthy scratch for Finland. He and KHL forward Miro Aaltonen were the only players on the roster to go pointless, with each doing so over eight games.
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Let’s try a different tack, though. Rather than comparing Puljujarvi to his draft peers or past Oilers or looking at the year through the lens of an 18-year-old with heavy expectations of himself, let’s consider it from a developmental perspective. How does the Puljujarvi of 2016-17 compare to the player of previous campaigns?
To answer that question, I use the league translation work done by Gabriel Desjardins and Rob Vollman. These numbers are simple; they’re average points/game totals based on the past performance of players coming from other leagues to the NHL. My preferred approach to the SM-liiga is to average Desjardins’ number (which is older, but based on a larger sample) with Vollman’s (which is newer but based on a smaller sample). For the AHL, I use Vollman’s number for players under 23 years of age (younger players are more likely to retain AHL offence in the majors than older players are). Here are the results:
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Season
League
Games
Points
NHLE (82GP)
2014-15
Liiga
21
11
17
2015-16
Liiga
50
28
18
2016-17
NHL
28
8
23
2016-17
AHL
39
28
37
The first question there is “why did a player with such lousy projected NHL numbers get drafted fourth overall?” The answer lies partially in a dominant performance at international tournaments (he was the MVP for a gold medal-winning Team Finland at the 2016 World Juniors) and partially in the kind of player Puljujarvi is projected to be. In its 2016 Draft Preview, The Hockey News compared Puljujarvi to Laine and two quotes from unnamed scouts stand out in particular:
  • On defensive play: “Laine wants to go—he puts himself in a position to facilitate offense, not defence. If they’re going to lean one way, Laine is leaning toward offense and Puljujarvi is leaning the other way.”
  • On NHL readiness: “Laine will score more earlier, but Puljujarvi, if he doesn’t score, he’ll still be able to help you.”
Those comments clash a little with what Bakersfield coach Gerry Fleming had to say in January, where he was critical of Puljujarvi’s defensive game, but not a lot. Fleming specifically cited a need for Puljujarvi to move in straight lines and work on stops and starts. This is a common complaint of a North American coach dealing with a European player used to European rink dimensions; the game overseas places more of an emphasis on circling and east-west motion to take advantage of the extra lateral space. Thus it’s fair to read them less as a critique of Puljujarvi’s defensive diligence than as an honest assessment that he has to make some adjustments to his technique.
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Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a big shock that Puljujarvi didn’t score a lot; we knew last year that the odds were good that he’d have mediocre totals as a rookie. What we can say is that he seemed to improve as the year went on, and after his work in the AHL late last season he’s probably in a much better position to win a regular NHL job this year than he was last fall. A jump in NHL equivalency from 18 points to 37 points must surely be seen as a success when looked at through a developmental lens
And while there is still reason to be concerned about Puljujarvi’s overall offensive upside, he does seem capable of delivering in at least one role: as a right-shooting power play triggerman. In 2015-16, 10 of Puljujarvi’s 17 goals came on the power play. His only NHL goal came on the power play. Five of 12 AHL goals came on the power play. He’s arguably over-dependent on the man advantage, but this isn’t like Griffin Reinhart getting a power play push in the AHL last season; Puljujarvi stands a good chance of actually seeing the man advantage as an NHL’er.
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It’s tempting—probably too tempting, given their shared nationality—to think back to Jere Lehtinen, the three-time Selke winner in Dallas. More than one-third of Lehtinen’s career goal-scoring came on special teams (where, like Puljujarvi, he was a right-shooting triggerman), and outside of one freak year he never had more than 35 even-strength points in a single season. Yet Lehtinen routinely played heavy minutes and his value to the Stars was undeniable.
A better comparison might be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who like Puljujarvi has a mixed track record as an even-strength weapon but is incredibly useful on the power play. The difference there is that Nugent-Hopkins is a left-shooting playmaker while Puljujarvi is a right-shooting shooter; the former is rendered superfluous by Connor McDavid while the latter is a match made in heaven for him.
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Still, it might not be a bad idea to keep offensive expectations to a minimum, at least for now. Chiarelli insisted in May that Puljujarvi is “going to be an impact player,” but even if that’s true it a) may take several years for that to happen and b) a lot of that impact is likely to be on the defensive side of the puck.
Bottom line: The Puljujarvi selection was always a long-term bet on a complete player, rather than an immediate gamble on an elite scorer. On the whole, 2016-17 should be considered a step in the right direction.
This is the final piece in a series reviewing the 2016-17 Oilers. Write-ups for the entire roster can be considered below.

Previous year-end reviews: