Pulju in Oulu

It was pretty hard to not see this coming.

Jesse Puljujarvi made it official Tuesday. He has signed a one-year deal with Oulu Karpat, his hometown team. The deal does include an out for Puljujarvi to be able to return to the NHL by December 1, whether that’s with Edmonton or another club. The significance of the December 1 date is that it is the deadline for RFAs to sign an NHL contract in order to be eligible to play that season.

By now, I assume that my readers are all too familiar with Puljujarvi’s situation in Edmonton. He has requested a trade. He feels that he can play in the top 6 at 15 minutes per night on an NHL team, and his preference is for that team to not be the Oilers.

We could sit here and speculate for hours about why Puljujarvi wants out of Edmonton. We can only work with information that we know to be factual.

He was drafted 4th overall in 2016. He played the first 28 games of his 18-year old season with the Oilers, where he scored 1 goal. That goal came in the first regular season NHL game at Rogers Place, and his shot went off of a defenceman and into the net. He totaled 8 points in those 28 games… it’s safe to say that he wasn’t ready at that time.

They eventually made the right decision and sent him down to Bakersfield, where he would get 28 points in 39 games. It wasn’t amazing production, but it was decent for a rookie. The truly right decision for him at that time in retrospect would’ve been for him to just have stayed in Finland to play there.

Puljujarvi would start his 2nd professional season in Bakersfield, which was the right decision. The problem came when they called him up after only 10 games! He got 5 points in those 10 games, which was a bit slower of a pace than what he had scored at in Bakersfield at the end of his rookie season.
He would spend the rest of the 2017-18 season with the Oilers, where he scored 20 points in 65 games (25-point pace). I think everyone was disappointed by that level of production in his second year. He didn’t light the AHL on fire in those 10 games at the start of the year, so I’m not sure why he was called up. He should’ve been in Bakersfield for all of that season, or at least a more significant amount of it.

Then 2018-19 happened.

I remember Puljujarvi saying that he was excited about earning a top 6 role with the Oilers beside McDavid or Draisaitl last summer. All reports said that he had an excellent summer of training and that his skating had improved another level. He had a decent pre-season where he did show improved speed and power in his skating stride. I was excited for that to unfold in the regular season!
That’s not how it played out.

Todd McLellan’s plan for Puljujarvi was to staple him beside his buddy Ryan Strome on the 3rd line. They had some decent chemistry together, and they seemingly liked each other. Puljujarvi could’ve moved up from there, but that wasn’t to be.

Puljujarvi played the first 7 games of the season, and he only had one goal to show for it. Then he was a healthy scratch in 4 straight games to end the month of October. He would play 4 more NHL games after that before being sent to Bakersfield.

It was Peter Chiarelli’s belief that Puljujarvi needed to “figure it out up here” rather than in Bakersfield. McLellan scratching Puljujarvi for 4 games (along with Bouchard, except his 4 games started and finished one game after Puljujarvi’s did) was clear evidence that he didn’t think Puljujarvi (and Bouchard) should’ve been with the big club. I believe that a difference of opinion on Puljujarvi was a big part of what spelled the end of McLellan’s time behind the Oilers bench. The firing happened on November 20, just a few short weeks after Puljujarvi’s scratching and 10 days after he was sent to Bakersfield.

McLellan had clearly run out of patience with Puljujarvi. I’m sure that Puljujarvi was pissed off at being healthy scratched and sent down to Bakersfield after his expectations were to be in the top 6 prior to the season.

McLellan was fired, and Ken Hitchcock arrived in his stead. The Oilers played 2 games in California immediately upon Hitchcock getting hired. Hitch asked Chiarelli to bring Puljujarvi back up to the Oilers immediately after those two games! I mean, they were already in California, so it was a short trip for Jesse to join the team. Puljujarvi had only played 4 games in Bakersfield though! I can see how the timing of all of those moves would’ve been frustrating for Puljujarvi.

Hitchcock said that a team needs big, skilled players like Jesse in order to win in the Western Conference. Hitchcock said that he wanted to take responsibility for Puljujarvi’s development. Hitchcock said that he envisioned Jesse playing in the top 6 within a couple of months of working with him (which would’ve been the end of January 2019).

If I were Puljujarvi hearing my new coach say those comments, I would’ve been excited!

Once again, we saw how it played out, and that wasn’t it.

Puljujarvi was predominantly placed on the 3rd or 4th line for the majority of Hitchcock’s tenure. He did get a few games on a line with Nugent-Hopkins and Khaira, which was actually a fairly effective line. That experiment didn’t last long though.

Puljujarvi got one look on the top line. He started the game against the Lightning at home in January on a line with McDavid and Nuge. I was at that game, and I had seats in the lower bowl in the zone the Oilers were attacking in twice that night. Puljujarvi actually looked pretty good on that line! He was in on the forecheck, and he used his body to protect the puck well. He actually had a nice assist on just such a play where he shielded the puck from a defender on the half-wall and got the puck to McDavid, who subsequently fed it to Nuge for the goal.

In the 2nd period, Darnell Nurse fed Puljujarvi a horrible pass in his feet near the offensive blue line. The turnover resulted in an unassisted breakaway goal for Nikita Kucherov. Puljujarvi never saw another shift on the top line that night, and he never got another look in the top 6 all season after that. Puljujarvi was kind of in an awkward spot on that play, but the pass from Nurse was awful… hard to fault a guy for not being able to accept that pass, especially when he had looked good on the top line for the whole first period. I thought the reaction from Hitchcock was too harsh.

If I was Puljujarvi, and Hitchcock treated me that way after saying all of those things about his vision for Puljujarvi’s development and deployment upon being hired, I’d be pissed off!

I understand that the player needs to earn his opportunities, but I don’t blame him for being pissed off after the way last season went. He had certain expectations for how the season was going to go. Both McLellan and Hitchcock (more so Hitchcock) outlined plans for Puljujarvi, and both coaches failed to stick to their plans.

We can’t exclude Chiarelli from this analysis either. Clearly Chiarelli wanted Puljujarvi with the Oilers, and by the end, McLellan did not. I don’t know if McLellan felt that Puljujarvi should’ve been in Bakersfield to start last season or not, but the healthy scratches after only 7 games are a pretty clear sign that if McLellan did want Puljujarvi in Edmonton at the start of the season, then his opinion changed quickly. I also don’t know why Chiarelli relented and finally sent Puljujarvi down. He probably figured that if McLellan was going to just sit him, then he would be better off in Bakersfield. Chiarelli certainly didn’t put up much of a fight with Hitchcock when he wanted Puljujarvi back up. My point here is that the demotion and super quick promotion weren’t helpful. Puljujarvi should’ve either been in the AHL at the start of the season, or he should’ve never been recalled. That’s on Chiarelli.

If we’re talking about Chiarelli’s role in Puljujarvi’s development from day 1, then Chiarelli should’ve been more patient with him and kept him in Finland during his rookie season. He could’ve come to North America to play in Bakersfield in year 2, and he might’ve been either NHL ready or closer to it by the start of last season. I would argue that Chiarelli’s biggest mistakes as GM were evaluations of two young players: Puljujarvi and Griffin Reinhart. He thought both were NHL ready at young ages when they clearly were not.

We also know that Markus Lehto, Puljujarvi’s agent, has said that the new GM and coach have done little to change Jesse’s mind because the team is still largely the same. That suggests to me that the management and the coaching wasn’t the only issue. That suggests to me that there might be an issue in the dressing room.

Most of us have seen Puljujarvi going to the ODR by himself to play with local kids, and we’ve seen selfies with fans on Instagram and Twitter. One could deduce that he’s somewhat of a lone ranger. I’ve also seen pictures of him at concerts and sporting events with McDavid and the gang, so I have a hard time believing that he’s a total outcast in the room.

It has been suggested that McDavid and Draisaitl have told coaches that they don’t want to play with the young Finn. I’m not in the room, so I can’t confirm those rumours, and frankly I’d be shocked by that because of McDavid’s calm and polite nature.

Much has been made of Puljujarvi’s struggles with the English language, and many people have blamed those struggles with the language for his struggles on the ice. Some people are throwing him under the bus because he hasn’t mastered the language yet, and it came out that he missed a few English classes here or there. That’s all speculation and hearsay honestly. None of us know the circumstances behind any of the classes or why they might have been missed. It was refreshing to hear Matt Benning talking about how he has worked with Puljujarvi on his English on Jason Gregor’s show recently. It showed that there is at least some kind of effort being put forth there. I’m not about to jump on the player for something we don’t have total clarity about.

I have a hard time believing that the language barrier is the reason why he wants out of Edmonton because that would likely be the same in any other city, unless he went to a place like Carolina where there are Finnish players in his age range. The only way I could see that being the reason is if Puljujarvi was mad about the Oilers failing to do enough to ease his transition to North America off of the ice. I have heard that the Oilers let their player liaison go around the time of Puljujarvi’s rookie season (I don’t have an exact date for that). Having a person dedicated to helping Puljujarvi transition to North American culture could’ve been huge for him. It’s possible that he could be holding a grudge against the organization for that. I’m speculating at this point, and Lord knows we’ve all heard enough speculation about this.

The past is in the past, and it’s time to look towards the future.

It’s clear that he still needs some seasoning before becoming the top 6 forward that he wants to be. He’s not succeeding as a bottom 6 forward in the NHL. Given the fact that he is now waivers exempt, the AHL is not an option for him because the Oilers would surely lose him for nothing on waivers if they were to try to send him to Bakersfield. He needs to be in a position where he can put the puck in the net if he is going to succeed. That’s why Europe is the best option for him for this coming season!

For those that are not familiar with Rob Vollman’s NHLe numbers, NHLe is a conversion factor used to predict a player’s NHL point production based on his play in another league. This is not an exact science because of things like a change in a player’s role on an NHL team and the inability to predict a rough transition to North American ice, but it gives you an idea of what a player’s potential can be.

It also gives us a good sense of the quality of other leagues around the world.

The KHL is the 2nd best league in the world with an NHLe number of 0.8, meaning that a player would get 0.8 points in the NHL for every point that he gets in the KHL. The AHL has an NHLe of 0.47.

The Finnish SM Liiga has an NHLe factor of 0.29… the OHL is at 0.32, the WHL is at 0.27, and the QMJHL is at 0.26! The Finnish league is basically on par with the CHL if you were to base your reasoning solely on NHLe.

I wish that Puljujarvi could’ve found a deal with a KHL (0.8) or an SHL (0.6) team so that he could play against a higher level of competition; but he’s playing for his hometown Oulu team. Being close to home will be nice for him, but he had better fill the net repeatedly in that league!! It’s likely a bit better than major junior given the fact that he would be playing against men rather than teenagers, but it’s still not a high level of professional hockey. My hope for him is that he finds a new level of confidence offensively this season, and that he can bring that back to the Oilers in 2020-21.

I applaud the way that Ken Holland has handled this situation. This situation was pretty predictable from my seat based on the fact that this situation involves two sides that have a low likelihood of budging. Puljujarvi is young and he is being enabled by his agent, and Holland is a veteran manager that has seen this play out too many times before. He has said that he will not trade the player unless he finds a deal that makes sense for the Edmonton Oilers. He isn’t going to trade Puljujarvi unless he finds a suitable return. Based on the fact that Puljujarvi was a 4th overall pick just 3 years ago and the Oilers can’t afford to take an L on this trade, my assumption is that a “suitable return” is more than teams are willing to pay for a player whose trade value is quite low at the moment based on his NHL performance and his public trade request.

This appeared destined to result in a holdout, and that’s exactly what has happened.

Puljujarvi could sign a contract and come back to the NHL before December 1, but I don’t see that happening. If Puljujarvi lights up the Finnish league in the first couple months, his trade value will increase. That will also likely mean that Holland’s asking price will go up. If it’s too high for teams now, imagine what it will be if Puljujarvi starts the season hot in Finland! I don’t think that Holland will trade Puljujarvi until he proves that he can produce at the NHL level.

That would entail Puljujarvi pulling up his socks and performing in Edmonton.

Ultimately, Puljujarvi has absolutely no leverage in this holdout. He is 21 years old, and he will hold RFA status until he is 27 years old. He is under the Oilers’ control for another 6 years. I can see this playing out similarly to the way Jonathan Drouin’s situation played out.

He re-joined the Lightning near the end of the 2016 season after failing to report to their AHL affiliate in Syracuse and demanding a trade. He only had 10 points in 21 NHL regular season games that season. Then he got 14 points in 17 games in the 2016 playoffs. He stayed in Tampa for one more year, where he got 53 points in 73 games, which was his career-high at the time. He got traded to Montreal in 2017 for Mikhail Sergachev.

I think that Drouin is a better player than Puljujarvi, and he had more success than our young Finnish friend prior to his trade request. I don’t expect a prospect like Sergachev to come back the other way, but I could totally see Puljujarvi having to prove his worth in the trade market by playing and succeeding in Edmonton before a trade happens. That trade might not happen until next summer at the earliest. My point is don’t hold your breath waiting for a Puljujarvi trade before opening night in October, because it’s not going to happen.

The way that the Oilers have handled Puljujarvi to this point has been disappointing. Puljujarvi also has his share of blame here. I am disappointed in how he has performed, and I really don’t think he has handled this whole situation well. My hope is that Puljujarvi comes back to Edmonton in 2020-21 as the top 6 RW that the Oilers so desperately need, and that he ends up wanting to stay in the end!
I’ve been disappointed many times before though.

For now, I wish Jesse the best of luck in Finland this season, and I’m getting excited for the start of training camp!!

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