Assessing Jesse Puljujarvi’s options, risks ahead of RFA deadline

Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi. (Jason Franson/CP)

With the Dec. 1 signing deadline just around the corner, two things are becoming increasingly clear on the Jesse Puljujarvi front:

It seems certain that he will remain Edmonton Oilers property through to the end of the season, and equally as certain that Puljujarvi will not sign an NHL contract with Edmonton — or anyone else — by 5 p.m. ET on Sunday. If he does not meet that deadline, Puljujarvi cannot play in the NHL this season.

Speaking on the 630 CHED radio show, Oilers Now, Oilers general manager Ken Holland had this to say on Monday:

“Right now it’s all quiet on the trade front, other than the Puljujarvi situation, which comes up on Sunday,” Holland said. Either Puljujarvi gets traded before then and signs, “or it’s probably something we’ll deal with next year at the draft. I’ve talked to a few teams this week, but (there’s) nothing new to report.”

Theoretically, Puljujarvi could sign with the Oilers to keep his NHL season alive. His camp has made it known, however, that they are happy to spend a full season in Finland, playing in the Finnish Liiga for Karpat and joining the national team for various tournaments, including the World Championships.

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At this point, one could say the pressure is on Holland not to waste the asset this season. But with his team in first place that pressure point is mitigated, somewhat. The true story here is Puljujarvi’s trade value, and that’s where the pressure to facilitate a trade shifts squarely on to the shoulders of the 21-year-old.

The player and his agent, Markus Lehto, took a calculated chance when they refused to sign in Edmonton, taking Puljujarvi’s talents back to Oulu, near where Puljujarvi grew up in Finland. The risk was, what if Puljujarvi doesn’t shine in Finland? What if he proves over there what we saw over here, that this is not yet an NHL player?

Puljujarvi’s numbers with Karpat are good — 11-13-24 in 22 games — but what does that really mean, when you consider that the Finnish Liiga is a level or two below the American Hockey League? Puljujarvi has little to gain with Karpat and everything to lose: If he’s great, well he should be great at that level. If he was average or poor in the Liiga, that would mean the AHL would be a struggle, let alone the NHL.

From Puljujarvi’s perspective, he is, as they say, betting on himself. The risk plays out like this:

Sure, he’s scoring goals for Karpat. His shortcomings as a player were never about his skating, shooting or scoring, however. What has kept Puljujarvi from being a full-time NHLer are his hockey smarts, his ability to play within an NHL system, and his ability to communicate in English.

The problem is, none of those skills can be learned or improved upon playing in Finland. Increased time with the national team against international competition will, perhaps, help NHL GMs decide if their team should send Holland any assets in trade for Puljujarvi.

However, Puljujarvi has to play well enough to earn those assignments. He has to make Team Finland, which is no easy task.

The first of four major tournaments each winter that European countries use to form their national teams for the World Championships is the Karjala Cup. It took place Nov. 7 to 10 in Helsinki, with Finland hosting Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic.

Puljujarvi played in three games at the Karjala, notching just one assist. In speaking with four people who were either at the games, or who had spoken with their organization’s scout who was there, Puljujarvi did not impress. The criticism remains pretty much verbatim from what it was during his time in the NHL:

Doesn’t play well as a member of a unit; prefers big, swooping circles to the stop-and-start game played in North America; does not exhibit even an average level of hockey sense.

We spoke to some people in Finland earlier this season, including Karpat GM Harri Aho, who all agreed that a full season in Finland would be best for Puljujarvi. At the Karjala Cup, Puljujarvi confirmed to Finnish journalist Sami Hoffren that he indeed planned to stay the entire season, joining the national team throughout a season that would end at the Worlds, to be played May 8 to 24 in Switzerland.

That seems like a solid plan, again, so long as Puljujarvi can make the team. His one-assist performance at the Karjala Cup was perhaps just a momentary stumble as he stepped up a level, but what if he fails to shine at future tournaments in Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic?

What if Finland names its team at the Worlds, and Puljujarvi isn’t on it?

Then where does his stock go?

The player has bet on himself, and the Oilers are cheering for him.

Because if Puljujarvi can’t make his own national team, he won’t be worth much more than a third-round pick — or someone else’s failed first-rounder — to Holland.

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