Oil Off Canvas: the re-emergence of Puljujarvi, a key ingredient in the Oilers’ initial success

Scott Burnside

There have been times this fall when Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland polled his club – a club with the third-best points percentage in the NHL before play started on Friday – and admittedly considered what life might be like if the big kid wore the number 13 was actually devastating opposing players and goalkeepers in a different jersey.

It’s a fleeting thought to be sure, but unappealing nonetheless, especially given the many trials and tribulations that marked Jesse Puljujarvi’s short career in the NHL.

« He has become an important player in our team, » Holland said in a recent conversation. « The way he has grown and evolved over the past couple of years, certainly if he wore a different uniform elsewhere, it wouldn’t be good. »

Not good indeed.

The fact that Puljujarvi and the Oilers have managed to step back from the edge the two sides were on a few years ago is also a testament to the old adage that the best deals are often the ones you don’t. It’s also a reminder that the line between patience and determination is often very thin and that being on the right side of that line makes all the difference.

A longtime NHL player, executive and talent assessor has said he believes if the previous administration had remained in place in Edmonton, it is highly likely that the big winger would in fact be somewhere else right now. . Finland? Caroline? Columbus? Who knows. Not in Edmonton.

And the fact that the current management team, led by the recently established Hall of Famer Holland with input from veteran head coach Dave Tippett, has managed to maintain an open dialogue with Puljujarvi and his representatives while exploring alternatives Commercial has also been a key factor in the current overhaul of what is a vital part of the Oilers’ championship dreams.

Puljujarvi’s 14 points (6G, 8A) rank fourth among the Oilers on Friday behind only Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, while Edmonton is atop the Pacific Division with a 12- record. 4-0.

Did we mention a fine line?

The former executive said there was a defined, silent subtext for the Oilers, which didn’t just trade the No.4 pick in the 2016 draft, when Puljujarvi and agent Markus Lehto made it clear that ‘they didn’t think Puljujarvi had a future in Edmonton.

That feeling, that Puljujarvi was done with the Oilers, has been reinforced on several occasions, Holland confirmed.

Given that dynamic, “I have an obligation to work on the phone or answer the phone, but at the end of the day there was nothing intriguing,” Holland said.

Funny how things go, right?

There was a time before the talent-rich 2016 draft where Puljujarvi was as touted as his compatriot Patrik Laine, who finished second overall behind Auston Matthews.

And perhaps the fact that Laine immediately caused a sensation in Winnipeg by scoring 36 times as a rookie and then scoring 44 goals in the sophomore only magnified Puljujarvi’s initial struggles in playing life for the NHL, and more specifically the life of Oiler of Edmonton. .

In his first three seasons, Puljujarvi yo-yoed from Edmonton to his American Hockey League affiliate in Bakersfield. Calls for the team to move on were heeded and Puljujarvi certainly would have been happy if that had happened at the time.

“I think when he arrived he was too young, didn’t know the language and was intimidated,” Tippett said. « And he just fell on the wrong side of things. »

In the spring of 2019, after Puljujarvi’s third season, Holland was named president of hockey operations and general manager of an Oiler team that had made an art form by wasting high picks and top talent.

Three weeks later, Holland hired Tippett, one of the industry’s most respected leaders.

Tippett recalled the talks when Holland took over on Puljujarvi’s move and calls from other teams hoping the Oilers would sell low on the underperforming winger.

“The guy was drafted high for a reason so we weren’t going to betray him,” Tippett said. “A lot of people have called on him.

Tippett credits Holland’s calm in the midst of a predicament to avoid the kind of move with a young player who can haunt a team for years to come.

And so, in the absence of an agreement for Puljujarvi, it then became a process of repairing bridges with the player.

Without a contract but still owned by the Oilers, Puljujarvi returned to his former team in Karpat, Finland for the 2019-20 season.

In January and February 2020, Holland, Tippett, Puljujarvi and Lehto, chatted via Zoom to talk about the future of Puljujarvi and in particular its future in Edmonton.

“We told him we wanted him to come back,” Holland said.

There would be new opportunities, the dressing room was a different place from where he arrived and it would be a new start, Oiler Brain Trust told Puljujarvi.

In the fall of 2020, instead of cutting ties, the team and the player agreed to a two-year contract with a cap of $ 1.175 million.

He’ll be a restricted free agent at the end of the current season and it’s a safe bet the Oilers won’t get that kind of deal over the cap if Puljujarvi continues to play at his current level.

Despite having a strong 15-goal, 25-point campaign in 55 games in the COVID-shortened season last season, Puljujarvi has thrived as the NHL returned to a normal schedule and divisional roster with a increased opportunity to play with reigning Hart Trophy captain and champion Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Hart Trophy winner two years ago.

« He came back with an incredibly positive attitude and his work ethic is second to none, and he’s a good player, » said Tippett.

Puljujarvi is basically at a points per game pace with six goals and eight assists. The good news for Oiler fans is that he isn’t upgrading his stats to get cleanup time on the league’s most powerful power play. He’s got one power-play goal and three power-play points, which means he’s doing the job required 5-5.

« He’s only scratched the surface, » another longtime player, executive and scout said of Puljujarvi.

Holland acknowledges that he has at times been criticized for being too cautious or conservative in terms of player development since his long tenure at Detroit.

But this situation called for patience.

“I think he had lost his confidence here,” Holland said.

And so, by returning to Finland, he was able to regain that confidence.

He thrived on the ice and worked his English and when he returned to Edmonton for his second round with the team he was in a much better position.

“This go-around was a much easier transition,” said Holland. « He knew what to expect, he was better prepared for it. »

“It couldn’t have worked out better,” Holland said.

We met the gracious 23-year-old on a recent road trip in the East.

If there is any apprehension in playing with two of the most skilled players in the world, Puljujarvi is not betraying any of that.

To hear him say it, it’s really very simple.

“Skate hard, go where I’m good, win these battles, help these guys,” Puljujarvi explained. “Fast hockey, you always have to be ready to play, so you need good concentration. I always try to have that good energy that they’re in.

He plays the same no matter who is on the ice with him, but Tippett said that when going out with Draisaitl and McDavid, Puljujarvi’s skills mesh extremely well with these two elite players.

“They recognize he’s a really good player and strong with the puck and that’s the job he does,” Tippett said. “There may be times when the pass doesn’t go well or there is a puck moving, but at the end of the day that’s the job he does to help us win. It’s Jesse’s main engine and players love him.

“He has a relentless work ethic and it doesn’t matter who he plays with,” Tippett said. “He creates free pucks with his pressure and his big long stick. He keeps the pucks alive and he has no problem going to the net and staying there.

As for the past, Puljujarvi, known affectionately around Edmonton as the King of Bison and periodic encounters with bison in the Edmonton area and a subsequent bison-themed Halloween costume, makes it clear that he did is not interested in retreading this land.

We ask him if he was wondering if it would ever work, because it now works in Edmonton. There is a pause and he starts to answer, then changes course.

– No, he said after another pause. “I have always had confidence in myself.

One of the challenges for Holland in helping this explosive team get off the ground was finding the right complementary parts for Draisaitl and McDavid. The addition of Zach Hyman, who a veteran GM compared to Chris Kunitz’s fit with Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, was key. But it came at a significant cost in the form of a seven-year deal with a cap of $ 5.5 million.

Puljujarvi, the lavish prospect in some ways, represents positives on many levels as the Oilers finally seek to exploit their great potential. But perhaps the biggest lesson from a player and team perspective is the value of not giving up on each other.

“I think there’s a part of that time that heals things here,” Tippett said. “His teammates recognize how precious he is as a player for us. He was excellent. In the room, the guys are having fun with him. He’s having fun. He’s one of those players, it’s a real joy to coach because he’s so committed to what you’re trying to do.

The Oil Off Canvas post: The re-emergence of Puljujarvi, a key ingredient in the Oilers’ early success, first appeared on Daily Faceoff.

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