Few things ring as true in Edmonton when it comes to hockey as the old “Fit In or F**k off” stickers you see clad on the back of jacked-up pickup trucks.
If you’re a hockey player in this city who doesn’t “fit in” to the perceived, but often ill-advised norm, you best pack light. The list is long in this city of players who have been run out of town for their playing style just not fitting in only to be sold at all-time lows.
All signs point to Jesse Puljujarvi being the latest.
The Oilers have this method of driving a player’s value low, and then moving on from them when they’re at their lowest. Puljujarvi’s time in Edmonton has been far from consistent. There have been stretches where he looks like the 4th overall steal the Oilers thought they were getting in 2016, then other times he’s looked like a player, as he described himself, lacking confidence.
Upon his return from a two-year stint in Karpat, things looked good for Puljujarvi. Between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, he scored at a half-a-point-per-game pace and a scoring rate that solidified him as a top-six winger. The issue? He was streaky. 2022 has been a year from hell for the Finn. 63 games played and just 19 points isn’t enough for a player who rides shotgun next to Connor McDavid.
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As I’ve written about exhaustively, there has always been lots to like about his game. He’s hard on pucks, a great forechecker and dogged in the defensive zone. He breaks plays up and makes life difficult for opposing teams in the neutral zone. In terms of driving play, he’s been great. According to hockeyviz.com, he provides offence at a five percent rate above league average and defence at an eight percent rate above league average. While the offence hasn’t translated to points, any player who can drive to the net and get shots from high-danger areas is a good player in my books.
But because Puljujarvi — who had double hip surgery at 20 years old in 2019 — skates a little weird and seems a bit uncoordinated far too often fanning on shots, large contingents of the market have turned on him like ravenous dogs. They’re content with driving a valuable asset out the door.
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To Ken Holland and the Oilers’ front office credit, they’ve played hardball with Puljujarvi. They were firm in wanting him to return to North America, albeit in no rush to force him back to Alberta’s capital, and they’ve refused — at least to this point — to sell low on the player.
But players who have come and gone from Edmonton themselves have said how the negative media attention in this city affects players. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski wrote about Taylor Hall’s open and honest assessment of Edmonton’s media.
“When you read articles every day about how much you suck, it’s tough,” Jordan Eberle said in 2017. “The Edmonton media can be pretty brutal and your confidence goes and this is a game you can’t play if you don’t have confidence.”
In that article referenced above, I’ll leave this snippet from Wyshynski referencing a now-deleted Mark Spector tweet:
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Mark Spector, an Edmonton-based columnist for Sportsnet and president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, said a player whose confidence is “ruined because of a few articles, none of which come remotely close to being as critical as what those same writers face here on Twitter” should be traded, because they are “mentally weak.”
Hall said it’s not about these players being “mentally weak,” but rather that this is about human nature.
“I read that Spector called Jordan ‘mentally weak.’ … It’s the same as blocking someone on Twitter: No one wants to read crappy stuff about yourself. You want to be blind to it,” Hall said.
“I think that if the media in Edmonton think that they don’t impact players, just a little bit, then they’re crazy. Everyone’s human. No one wants to read crappy stuff about them, no matter how good of a player you are.”
Hall said the coverage was tough, but not unjust — just impactful.
“I never felt that the media was unfair in Edmonton, but when you do read constant negative stuff about yourself, you can’t help but lose confidence,” he said.
Truth be told, the franchise’s history of selling low on players is exhaustive.
  • The Oilers traded Ethan Bear for Warren Foegele. Bear spent a significant chunk of time playing top pairing minutes in his early days in Carolina, but a concussion and COVID-19 infection affected his game. Now, he’s with the Vancouver Canucks and has been a tremendous addition to their blueline.
  • Mikko Koskinen, who was far from a perfect netminder in any sense of the term, despite mustering league-average goaltending over his four-year tenure.
  • The Eberle trade tree is a saga we know all too well. Eberle, for Ryan Strome, for Ryan Spooner for Sam Gagner, for (with picks added) Andreas Athanasiou. Woof.
  • Nail Yakupov’s value was driven to a low before he was traded to St. Louis for a contract and a conditional third-round pick. Yakupov appeared to find some legs but eventually fizzled out.
  • No matter how good Adam Larsson became on the Oilers’ back end, trading Hall for him straight up was never good asset management. Hall even talked about later how the negative media attention in the city affected the players.
  • How about Justin Schultz? A good, but not great defenceman who turned his game around in his final year only to be dealt for a third-round pick. Schultz, for what it’s worth, has played eight years in the NHL since leaving Edmonton with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and now Seattle Kraken. He’s signed four contracts worth almost $ 26 million. Good for him.
  • Jeff Petry got run out of town with the Oilers getting back a 2nd and conditional fifth-round pick. We know how important of a player he’s been to the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins in recent years.
  • Ales Hemsky was on the receiving end of brutal and unfair criticism for pretty much his entire 11-year tenure in Edmonton despite being one of the team’s most consistent point producers.
Hall’s comments continue to reign true. No player should be above criticism, but no one player should be so heavily targeted above the rest, either.
With Holland and co. having played hardball in the past already, one can hope that the Oilers can continue to keep the player around, even if he is in a third-line role. A shutdown third line of Warren Foegele, Ryan McLeod and Jesse Puljujarvi, who have already shown a tremendous ability to limit opposing offences, could be a handful.