Winning Supersedes Political Bullshit

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to comment on the topic du jour in Edmonton: the potential deployment of Jesse Puljujarvi should he return to the Oilers.

This debate started after David Staples released an article that suggested that Puljujarvi and Nygard should be used on McDavid’s wings based on their fancy stats when deployed next to 97. Puljujarvi had a 61.5% Goals For rate with McDavid in 408 minutes together during Puljujarvi’s first stint in Edmonton, which was the best such rate of any Oilers forward with at least 400 minutes worth of a sample size. The pair also had a 53.1% Shots For rate, and a 57.5% High Danger Chances For rate. The numbers suggest that the two were getting decent results together.

The counter argument to the one from Staples is that Puljujarvi has not earned the opportunity to play with McDavid on the top line. The idea is that he needs to start at the bottom of the lineup and work his way up instead of just being given a spot on the top line. Supporters of this argument also point to the fact that the Finnish Elite League that Puljujarvi played in last season and is dominating thus far in the preseason is an inferior league to the AHL let alone the NHL, which means that his success in that league is irrelevant and not suggestive that he should be on a top line in the NHL.

I want to dive in to this idea of Puljujarvi needing to earn it here. I understand that nothing is given in life and that success is earned. I commend Ken Holland for not giving in to Puljujarvi’s trade request right away. He hasn’t earned the right to be calling the shots in regards to which NHL team he plays for yet. Puljujarvi apparently wants a raise over his ELC salary, somewhere in the $1.5 million range. He hasn’t earned that yet based on his NHL production. He has obviously not signed a contract yet, but I assume there is a negotiation going on right now. I expect Holland to win the day there and get Puljujarvi signed for about $1 million. From an employment perspective, Holland is making Puljujarvi earn it.

“You want a trade? Well, I hate to break it to you, but your trade value is nil right now. If you come back and produce, then we’ll discuss a possible trade. You’ve got to earn that trade.”

“You want $1.5 million? Show me why you think you deserve that kind of money. I’ll sign you for one-year at $1 million, and you can get $1.5 million or more if your performance in the NHL warrants it.”

Puljujarvi is not being given anything here so far.

We also need to remember that Puljujarvi will not be an NHL rookie if he signs here. It’s not as if he just got drafted and the Oilers are about to stick a kid on the top line with nothing but a wing and a prayer. The kid has 139 NHL games under his belt, the vast majority of which he spent playing in the bottom 6. He has had multiple stints in the AHL. The kid has paid some dues.

There’s also going to be this little thing called training camp! You know, that two-week stretch where the boys practice every day, get some exhibition games in, and they compete for roster spots. There will be opportunity for Puljujarvi to show Coach Tippett why he should be on the top line with McDavid before opening night. If Puljujarvi out performs the other right wingers at camp, then there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be on the top line. If guys like Kassian and Archibald are better, then they should get the first crack on the top line. Puljujarvi can earn it at camp. The cream always rises to the top, and I believe we will see Puljujarvi rise at camp.

This is the NHL. Everyone in that organization is paid to win hockey games. They need to make decisions that help the hockey team win. That means putting guys in the right roles to succeed. Putting a plug on the top line doesn’t make sense because he doesn’t have the skill to play with the best players, and putting a scorer on a grinding or checking line doesn’t work because that eliminates the effectiveness of that player, and it limits the effectiveness of the checking line because checking is not the scorer’s strength. Therefore, putting Kassian on the top line over Puljujarvi when the young Finn is the more talented player and has better fancy stats with McDavid doesn’t make sense. Kassian is a checking forward that was moonlighting as a top line winger in 2019-20. Puljujarvi is a scoring winger that has been forced to play a checking role thus far in his NHL career. Those roles need to be reversed.

That’s why I was so frustrated with how Todd McLellan and Ken Hitchcock used Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi is a noted goal scorer, yet he was always stapled to the third or fourth line, or the bench. He had 408 minutes with McDavid over three seasons… that isn’t a whole lot. If he was given an opportunity with McDavid, then it was taken away if he made one little mistake. They didn’t score 15 goals in the one period they got to play together, so the coach took Puljujarvi off of the line. The coaches gave up on the combination way too quickly. Staples provided actual data which revealed that Puljujarvi and McDavid were not a bad combination, which makes the quick demotion of Puljujarvi in those situations more frustrating.

Normally, players that you’d expect to play on a top line that get stuck in the bottom 6 get stuck there because of terrible defensive play, such as in the case of Nail Yakupov. It’s not as if Puljujarvi is a total wreck defensively. Ken Hitchcock, one of the winningest coaches in NHL history and a coach with a reputation for demanding a lot out of his players on the defensive side of the puck, praised Puljujarvi for his defensive play. He talked about how good he is at using his stick to defend, and he gushed about Puljujarvi’s frame and how guys with his size that can do what he can do are essential to winning in the Western Conference.

So let me get this straight… he’s not terrible defensively and he had the best fancy stats of any Oilers winger to play with McDavid for over 400 minutes over his three seasons (although he barely made the cut for that limited amount of minutes), and he still was stuck in the mud in the bottom 6. I don’t get it!

Then Puljujarvi decided to go play in Finland because he was frustrated with the Oilers for whatever reason. Whether it was his usage, a locker room culture issue, or how the training staff handled his injuries, I don’t blame the kid for being frustrated. I don’t like the way he handled it, but I also think that playing the year in Finland was great for him. Regardless of the politics around it, Puljujarvi did what he was supposed to do in Finland. He finished in a tie for 4th in scoring in the Finnish league. He was the best player on his team and one of the best in that league. I would expect that from a 22-year old 4th overall pick and former World Jr MVP.

However, his performance in Finland translates to an NHLe of 35 points. That would equate to really good 3rd line production, so there’s your argument for why he has to be on the third line. NHLe is a nice tool to give you a sense of what to expect, but it isn’t always predictive of NHL success.

How about Viktor Arvidsson? He seemingly came out of nowhere to put up 61 points in 80 games with Nashville in 2016-17 when he was 23 years old. He had never had a season in any league where he had an NHLe of more than 42 points prior to that year.

Conor Sheary had 36 points in 30 AHL games in his 23-year old season (NHLe of 48). He got called up to the Penguins and got 10 points in 47 games that year. The next season, he got 53 points in 61 games with the Penguins, which works out to 71 points when extrapolated over an 82-game season.

I’ve shown you two examples of how NHLe isn’t always predictive of NHL success from other teams, but let’s look at our very own Kailer Yamamoto. He had an NHLe of 27 points in 2018-19, and an NHLe of 28 points last season in Bakersfield last season before being called up to Edmonton and getting 26 points in 27 games. He spent one game on the 3rd line, and then he got put on the line with Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins. He’s younger than Puljujarvi, he’s had fewer NHL games than Puljujarvi, and he never had a professional season with as high of an NHLe as what Puljujarvi just put up in Finland prior to being re-called; yet I didn’t see anyone in Edmonton that was upset about Yamamoto getting to play with those guys. Now, half of the fanbase is up in arms over the IDEA that Puljujarvi MIGHT get to play on the top line with McDavid. It’s ridiculous.

The difference between Yamamoto and Puljujarvi is that Yamamoto and his line were able to produce points quickly when they were together, while Puljujarvi did not get many points with McDavid right away. I’m not going to sit here and say that Puljujarvi would’ve been a point per game player if a coach would’ve actually stuck with the Puljujarvi-McDavid combination for any real length of consecutive time, but I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that the line would have produced some level of offence if given more time based on the fancy stats that Staples pointed out.

Chemistry is a thing as well. Yamamoto is a good fit for the Draisaitl and Nuge line because he’s annoying on the forecheck, he’s good on the cycle, and he can finish. Puljujarvi could be a good fit for McDavid because he is fast and can also get in on the forecheck. He’s got a big frame and he can protect pucks well just like Kassian and Maroon can. He’s got a rocket of a shot and he’s a noted sniper, which seems like just the type of player that the best playmaker in the NHL needs on his wing.

The only potential reason I can think of that Puljujarvi might not be the perfect fit for McDavid is that he was the guy carrying the puck up the ice and driving play with Karpat. That type of player doesn’t fit with McDavid, as we saw with Taylor Hall. To play with McDavid, you also need to know how to find soft spots in the opposing defence in order to get open. I think it will take Puljujarvi a little bit of time to learn to find those openings on North American ice, but I think that he will get there. One thing that I noticed about Puljujarvi during his first stint with the Oilers is that he had a lot of shot attempts blocked simply because he couldn’t get his shot off fast enough. That could partly be a release issue, but I’m not going to sit here and criticize the kid’s release when my shot is a muffin. I think it’s more of a function of not quite finding the right holes in the defence.

The other thing we need to consider while drawing up potential line combos for the Oilers next season is the potential of each of the available options. I’m stapling Yamamoto to Draisaitl. It wasn’t great in the playoffs, but it was fantastic in the regular season, so I’m going back to it. The other options are Kassian, Archibald, and Chiasson.

Kassian beat his career-high by 5 points playing with McDavid mostly this season. He got 34 points. That’s it. He did that in 59 games, which works out to 47 points over 82 games. That’s good, but that’s his absolute ceiling. Archibald had a couple of nice stints with McDavid as well. He was on pace for a career-year too, but we’re talking about 21 points in 62 games here (27 points in 82). That’s not a top line winger for any stretch of time. Then there’s Chiasson, who had a career-high 38 points with Edmonton in 2018-19. He did most of his damage on the powerplay that year, although he did get a good chunk of time with McDavid and Draisaitl. Just like Kassian, that would be Chiasson’s ceiling in the perfect situation.

The other options at RW are not awe inspiring! You’ve got a 22-year old former 4th overall pick and former World Jr MVP (a feat he accomplished as a 17-year old for crying out loud) with 139 games of NHL experience that is toying with the competition in Finland. While NHLe isn’t necessarily predictive of NHL success, his NHLe suggests that 3rd line production is his floor right now, while 3rd line production is the ceiling for the other available options.

WHY WOULDN’T YOU TRY PLAYING HIM WITH YOUR BEST PLAYER??

If Puljujarvi turns out to be a train wreck, then you put him on the 3rd line and put Kassian back on McDavid’s right wing. In the worst-case scenario, the top line is right where we started and the third line might actually be a threat to score once in a while. Heaven forbid.

I honestly don’t care about the political shit surrounding Puljujarvi. These are professional athletes whose only goal is to win. Winning supersedes political bullshit. I believe that Puljujarvi is the best right-winger that the Oilers own the rights to aside from Yamamoto right now, so I believe that Puljujarvi should get a chance to start the season on McDavid’s wing.

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