Puljujarvi Recalled… Already?

The Oilers have recalled Jesse Puljujarvi ahead of Sunday’s game against LA. He had 4 points in 4 games in his latest stint with Bakersfield. A lot of fans are upset that he has been recalled so quickly after how he was playing and being utilized by Todd McLellan. He was a healthy scratch for 5 games (4 straight at one point), and he played only 9:06 in his last game before being sent down. Everyone was expecting more out of Puljujarvi in Edmonton at the start of the season. He reportedly had a great summer of training, and he came to camp brimming with confidence. He expected to be in the top 6 with one of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.

McLellan had different plans.

McLellan planned to keep Puljujarvi with Ryan Strome to start the season. They played together all through training camp. Puljujarvi had 4 goals in 5 games in the preseason. His skating had noticeably improved, and he was just playing with more confidence. Then the regular season started. He had 1 goal in 11 games before being sent down. He was making a lot of mistakes defensively. He had lost his confidence. After being healthy scratched so many times, Peter Chiarelli decided to send Puljujarvi down to the AHL. Chiarelli declared that Puljujarvi was being sent down to get more touches and to regain his confidence. Fans and media alike were excited at the prospect of Puljujarvi getting the chance to play 20 minutes a night and put up big numbers for an extended period of time.
2 weeks and 1 coaching change later, Puljujarvi is back with the Oilers.

Naturally, Oilers fans and media members are frustrated that Puljujarvi’s stay in Bakersfield was so short. Chiarelli was already drawing plenty of criticism for how Puljujarvi’s development has been handled. He was with the Oilers for far too long in his rookie season before being sent down. He was brought back up too soon in his second season, and he struggled at the NHL level. Then this season happened. 5 healthy scratches and a demotion to the 4th line before finally being sent down. The feeling amongst the fanbase was that if Puljujarvi isn’t ready to be a contributor in the top 6, then he should be in Bakersfield.

The first question posed to Chiarelli on the subject today was about whether he saw development in Puljujarvi’s game or if the coaching change had altered the game plan for Jesse. His response was that he did see some development and some confidence. The last part of his response was the most interesting though: “If you remember, when we sent him down I said about getting touches and getting confidence. There’s a distinction between development and that.

Puljujarvi was not sent to the AHL for development purposes. This was always going to be a short-term stay for Puljujarvi. Chiarelli believes that Puljujarvi is an NHL player right now.

The other interesting aspect of this recall is that Hitchcock asked Chiarelli to make it happen. Hitch watched 2 of Puljujarvi’s games (one NHL and one AHL), and that was enough for him to decide that Puljujarvi needed to be with the Oilers. He has a vision for Puljujarvi, and he has a plan for how he will execute his vision. For now, he believes that Puljujarvi can be a force on a big, physical line in the bottom six. Hitch expects Puljujarvi to be elevated to a top 6 role within a month. He had three specific comments about Puljujarvi’s game that stood out to me. The first was that Jesse “makes little plays really, really well in the offensive zone.” He forechecks well when he is skating with confidence, and his ability to make little passes on the cycle is underrated. The second was that he wants to work quickly with Jesse to “get the glide out of [his game] when the other team has the puck.” This is a subtle jab at Puljujarvi’s defensive game. Puljujarvi needs to move his feet more on defence. One of Hitchcock’s ideas is about playing defence in the offensive zone as well as the defensive zone. I said that Puljujarvi forechecks well when he’s skating with confidence… Hitchcock will get that out of Puljujarvi consistently. He likely won’t get beat off of the wall in the defensive zone if he is able to move his feet more instead of gliding. The third was that Puljujarvi shows the NHL a little bit too much respect. I recall that Draisaitl was having a bit of the same issue early in his Oilers career. Taylor Hall told him to just relax and go out and play because he’s a really good player. Todd McLellan told him that he needed to give himself permission to be the best player on the ice. He doesn’t have to settle for being the second best player behind McDavid every night. It was really about Draisaitl understanding just how good he is and being able to bring that every night. I see a lot of the same thing going on with Puljujarvi. He is a skilled player. He just needs to understand how good he can be.

That is a difficult thing to understand when you have a coach in McLellan that was taking the tough love approach with him. It’s hard to see yourself succeeding in the NHL if you’re a healthy scratch for 4 games in a row. It’s difficult to see that you can be a top 6 player when you’re consistently stuck on the 3rd and 4th lines. It’s difficult to see yourself as a trigger man on a top powerplay unit if the coach doesn’t put you on the powerplay. McLellan needed Puljujarvi to earn those things before they were given to him. Puljujarvi didn’t earn any of that under McLellan for whatever reason. You can’t expect someone to succeed if you don’t put them in a role where they can succeed; but you can’t just give someone opportunities based on how high they were drafted either. It’s a tough thing to balance. It’s clear that McLellan’s strategy for Puljujarvi wasn’t working.

It’s also clear that McLellan and Chiarelli weren’t on the same page when it came to Puljujarvi. He wasn’t playing very much under McLellan, and Puljujarvi had lost his confidence as a result. Chiarelli clearly wanted him to be playing, so he gave Puljujarvi that chance when he realized that he wasn’t going to get that opportunity under McLellan. Chiarelli said that he talked to Hitchcock about Puljujarvi before he made the coaching change, and he has talked to Hitchcock about it since. It clearly factored in to the decision to make the coaching change. When asked if he sees value in having Puljujarvi with Hitchcock, Chiarelli said that there is value there, and “there’s a willingness, a want on the coach’s side. I’m not saying anything about Todd; I’m just saying yes, there is some value there.”

Read in to that comment what you will. One could take that to mean that Todd didn’t have that willingness or want to work with Puljujarvi anymore. McLellan said that since Puljujarvi is in his 3rd pro season, he needs to be held accountable like anyone else. That comment was a sign that his patience was wearing thin with Jesse. Hitchcock, on the other hand, specifically requested that Chiarelli get the player with the group as quickly as possible instead of having him play a meaningful AHL game that night. Hitchcock said that he wants to take responsibility for Puljujarvi’s development. That is a stark contrast in the attitude of the two coaches in question here.

There a lot of factors that have gone into why Puljujarvi has been slow to develop. The length of time that he spent with the big club in his rookie season. The language barrier. McLellan’s approach was a factor, but it wasn’t the only factor. However, we definitely have enough evidence to infer that there was something of a struggle between Chiarelli and McLellan surrounding Puljujarvi. That is in the past now. We can look ahead to Puljujarvi being in the hands of an incredibly experienced coach that wants to work with him. Hitchcock is known as a straight forward communicator, as we have got a glimpse of in his first week with the club. I can’t say if Hitchcock’s directness with resonate with Puljujarvi or if it will help with the language barrier, but those things certainly can’t hurt.

In my estimation, Puljujarvi is bound to break out at some point soon. He had 4 goals in 5 games in the pre-season, and he had 4 points in 4 games in the AHL this season. He can be quite productive against low level professional competition. However, he hasn’t shown that he can do it against high level professional competition yet. He is somewhere in between. We have to remember that the kid is 20 years old. He’s 6’4”, 201 lbs at the age of 20. That’s a big kid! Big kids like that are normally awkward, and they tend to not be quite as coordinated until they are done growing. He’s not done growing yet! I honestly don’t think that his hands and his feet have caught up to his body just yet. I personally think that is the biggest reason for his slower development at the NHL level. He has a cannon for a shot, but he struggles to get it off quickly. His release is far too slow. He is quite fast once he hits top speed, but he doesn’t have the acceleration needed to excel at the NHL level yet. Once his hands and his feet catch up to his body, he will hone those skills. Sure, he’s not the best defensively yet, but that can be taught. Hitchcock is the right coach for that job as far as I’m concerned. Some players take longer than others to get it. It’s tougher with Jesse because he had to learn English from scratch once he came here 2 years ago. That’s life.

It will come for Jesse. Here’s hoping that Hitchcock can fast-track Puljujarvi’s development, because the Oilers sorely need him to be an offensive contributor sooner rather than later.

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