Much Ado About Jesse Puljujärvi

UPDATE 07/09: Since writing this post, things have gone from bad to worse for Jesse Puljujärvi’s tenure in Edmonton. Statements from his agent have been slowly evolving from casual suggestions and recommendations of a new start for the young winger to his agent blatantly saying it is time to find a new team, it has become clear that Puljujärvi’s party wants out.

Reading into the situation suggests many of the reasons discussed below are why he has not worked out with the Oilers organization, from being rushed and pushed in the wrong ways by managers and coaches who he didn’t gel with to a complete gongshow of a development path.

The most likely scenario is a trade for a fresh start, something the new Oilers GM is not going to rush into. Ken Holland has made it clear that Jesse will only be traded when the right return for the Oilers is available.

Over the past month, we have witnessed a crucial time in Jesse Puljujärvi’s tenure with the Edmonton Oilers. The 4th overall pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft came to the organization with great hype surrounding him. No one expected the Finnish winger to make it past the third pick, owned by Columbus. They passed on him, however, giving the incredibly surprised Edmonton Oilers organization a chance to draft the highly touted Finn (and put a stop to some potential draft pick swaps, as well).

Since then, Jesse has … well disappointed many. Even though he is a young player, coming over from Finland knowing minimal English and never having played the North American game, he seems to take a lot of flak for the situation he has found himself in, through very little fault of his own. It was clear fairly early in his NHL career that maybe he should be in the AHL developing for a season or two, giving him a chance to adapt to North America (both the culture and the hockey). And, that sort of happened. In his first year he spent 28 games in Edmonton (putting up 8 points) and 39 down with the Oilers’ affiliate in Bakersfield (with 28 points to show for it).

Jesse Puljujarvi (of the Edmonton Oilers) giving an interview while playing for Finland.

Ideally, one would think that there should be no rush to bring him up into the NHL. Let him develop more while playing in the AHL. When he is ready, we will know it (and he will be able to show it). Instead, what happened that off-season completely threw that mentality out the window. 

After their playoff appearance in the 2016-17 season, Peter Chiarelli decided that the Oilers had too many wingers/forwards on the roster and subsequently got rid of Jordan Eberle, Benoit Pouliot, Matt Hendricks, Tyler Pitlick, and David Desharnais. Although those players were coming off of disappointing seasons, they were still valuable NHL’ers, veterans, and role players who would have been above Puljujärvi on the team’s depth chart at that point in his career. Chiarelli didn’t bring anyone in to replace them, either. He must have truly believed that players who had never played above a 3rd line, or 4th line, or even an AHL level would magically become productive 1st and 2nd liners.

Now, I mean no disrespect to these players (Jesse Puljujärvi, Zack Kassian, Drake Caggiula, Jujhar Khaira, Ryan Strome) because each of them are excellent contributors when playing in a suitable role. But, players who have no history of being 50-60 point producers in the NHL aren’t just going to do that all of a sudden because you give them top line minutes. Jesse got caught in this trap. With few players ahead of him in the depth chart, Jesse was suddenly rushed back into the NHL, unfortunately before he was ready.

[Chiarelli] must have truly believed that a bunch of players who had never played above a 3rd line, or 4th line, or even an AHL level would magically become productive, offensive players capable of being 1st and 2nd liners

In his second season, Jesse managed 20 points in 65 games, playing an average of 13:22/game. This puts him mostly in a second or third line role. The season was a major disappointment, though he was not alone in that as the entire team (outside of McDavid, Draisaitl, and Khaira) was incredibly disappointing as well. Although he showed promise for stretches, Jesse, at times, went games without finding the scoreboard, was rarely put in situations to succeed (such as some time with McDavid or some time on the powerplay), and never seemed to earn the favour of the coach or organization.

That is not to say that Jesse should have just been given ice time and powerplay time without showing he can make use of it. There still has to be a sense of ‘earning it’. But even in times where Jesse had a good game, he wouldn’t get a chance on a late powerplay or his time with McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins would rarely survive the line blender system Todd McLellan regularly employed. Over the course of a whole season we never really saw much progress in Jesse’s game. He still had the same tendencies, made the same decisions with the puck (how to get rid of it as fast as possible), and he did not seem to be developing into the type of player he would need to be to succeed in the NHL.

One of Jesse’s greatest assets is his size. He is a 6-foot-4, 200 pound winger who excels in a two-way, power forward role. He also possesses a wicked shot with an unbelievably fast release. But by the end of the 2017-18 season, he was still a perimeter player who didn’t utilize his size to overpower on the forecheck (though he is still generally aggressive and tenacious) or to get into positions to shoot.

Is this a coaching issue? Was the coaching staff not getting through to him or teaching him properly? Or was it organizational, as in he should have been sent down after training camp but they couldn’t because there was no one else to play wing? Or, was it Jesse himself, in a bit of a Nail Yakupov situation where he wasn’t putting in effort to learn the things he needed to improve on? This is, as of right now, an unanswerable question because we do not have a clear picture of the behind the scenes situation, only snippets that occasionally find their way onto Twitter. The only certainty is that he probably should not have been in the NHL regularly at that point.

So now we move to this season. Once again, Jesse is left in the NHL after training camp because the team has no depth on the wings. And once again, it is very quickly apparent that he should be spending time in the AHL. After averaging 11:57 in ice time per game and putting up 9 points in 45 games, Jesse’s season was shut down due to a hip injury after a stint on the IR. The situation leading to the injury leads me to believe it was a long-term discomfort that had been bothering him, which could explain the regression in his performance over the 18-19 season.

Hockey fans, media, and probably their dogs too were all saying Jesse needs time in the minors; he is not thriving and is barely treading water in the NHL. He found himself scratched, benched, and playing on lines with offensive black holes all season long. In the months leading up to the injury, he was one of the top candidates to be traded by the deadline (though the team, thankfully, believes in him and didn’t want to trade him yet). We reached a point where his agent, Markus Lehto, began appearing in the media questioning the team, the fit for his client, and subtly hinting that maybe it would be best on both sides for a fresh start.

This situation is, unfortunately, beginning to show similarity to Nail Yakupov’s time with the team. Exciting, offensive prospect struggling in his first few years who was rushed into the NHL because the team had no one else to fill the roster, ends up benched and scratched regularly, agent starts going public with issues and the player is eventually traded.

Hopefully this is not the case, and I do not believe it will be. Jesse shows a lot of promise to be an effective mid-line forward with a versatile skillset that can help him succeed in the current NHL. First, the unique combination of speed and size make him a good candidate for success in the NHL, if he can find out how to utilize them. Second, his two-way play was praised before he even made it to the NHL, and he has never disappointed in his aggressiveness on and ability to forecheck. And lastly, when he uses it, his shot is heavy and he has a deceptively fast release that he does not need much room for.

A new aspect to his playstyle that has been popping up through this season is seeing him getting involved in scrums and playing a bit of a pest role, getting involved in post-whistle antics. Personally, I don’t mind this one bit; it might suit the type of player he can become with some development time.

Jesse shows a lot of promise to be an effective mid-line forward with a versatile skillset that can help him succeed in the current NHL.

At this point, what he needs to work on the most is developing his hockey IQ and understanding of the game because he needs to read plays better so he isn’t just reacting to what happens and chasing the play or ending up 2 seconds behind everyone else. This is not going to happen overnight, nor is it likely to happen in the NHL because the league is too fast for him to really take anything in from it in real time.

I believe that next season, if Jesse can come to camp healthy, the team may finally take his development seriously and let him go play with the Bakersfield Condors in an environment focused on growing prospects. This would be the best-case scenario for his career, in my opinion. Some time in a winning, learning environment could do wonders for his confidence and ability to think the game.

Career Stats from: Hockey Reference

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