Why Jesse Puljujarvi and the Oilers are Giving Their Relationship Another Try

The first few seasons were disastrous for 2016's No. 4 overall pick. But he returns with renewed confidence and a new Edmonton regime that believes in him.
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Jesse Puljujarvi is coming back to North America. And he’s coming to play exclusively in the NHL this time.

On Wednesday, Day 2 of the 2020 NHL draft, the Edmonton Oilers announced they’d re-signed the right winger, 22, to a two-year contract with a $1.175-million AAV. The dollar value and the fact it’s a one-way deal indicate Puljujarvi will receive the chance to seize a major role with the Oilers going forward.

That’s significant given the rocky start he’s endured since 2016, when he was perceived as a borderline consensus top-three pick in the NHL draft only to be passed over by the Columbus Blue Jackets for Pierre-Luc Dubois. The Oilers took Puljujarvi fourth, and his early NHL experience was a grind. He managed one goal in 28 games as a teenage rookie. The Oilers burned a year of his entry-level deal and ended up demoting him to AHL Bakersfield. He bounced between the Oilers and Bakersfield the next two seasons as well. His ice time topped out at 13:22 in the 2017-18 season. During his first three years, 518 forwards played at least 500 minutes in the NHL at 5-on-5. Among that group, Puljujarvi sat 355th in goals per 60 and 233rd in primary assists per 60.

It thus wasn’t too surprising to see Puljujarvi request a trade through his agent Markus Lehto in June 2019 and not sign his qualifying offer as an RFA for the 2019-20 season. Puljujarvi was clearly unhappy with his role. He needed a change.

But many of Puljujarvi’s problems stemmed from the previous regime including GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan. Edmonton hired GM Ken Holland and coach Dave Tippett in May 2019. Holland was always optimistic about bringing Puljujarvi back. He kept close tabs on Puljujarvi’s 2019-20 season with Karpat, in which he was one of the Finnish League’s best players and finished fourth in scoring. Holland, Puljujarvi and Lehto began having regular Zoom chats in the spring, Tippett joined them on the calls by the summer, and the quartet came to agree it was time for Puljujarvi to rejoin the team.

“It wasn’t that long ago he was one of the top players in the world in his age group,” Holland said over the phone Wednesday. “He came over, and it was a bit of tough go, he stayed home. I think that last year, him staying in Finland, probably in the grand scheme of things was a good thing, not a bad thing, because he got his confidence back. He was an important player. Our team is different now, with a different coach and a different general manager and a different dynamic in the locker room, and I think it’s a great opportunity to try the relationship all over again.”

Among fellow 2016 draftees, Puljujarvi sits 14th in games, 13th in goals and 17th in points, albeit he didn't play in North America at all in 2019-20. Still, so far, he has to be labelled as a bust. And yet, of the 188 rookie skaters to play an NHL game this season, 129, or 68.6 percent, are actually older than Puljujarvi. He has upside left to unlock in his 6-foot-4, 201-pound frame. In the aforementioned sample of 518 forwards, Puljujarvi was a respectable 133rd in shots per 60 and 102nd in individual shot attempts per 60. That latter stat put him in the 80th percentile.

So does that mean he’ll get a chance to play high in Edmonton’s lineup? It partially depends on what the Oilers do in free agency, but Puljujarvi will have every chance to make his mark.

“That’s exactly what we talked about,” Holland said. “It’s pro hockey. There are no guarantees. We’re in the winning business. The coach is going to decide on an everyday basis who’s dressed and what the line combinations are, who plays with who…we’re hoping year 2 he’s a really good cap number for us, maybe even year 1. Does he play on the first two lines or the bottom two? I think that’s got to be sorted out by the coaches and by Jesse coming in and taking somebody’s job.”

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