EDMONTON — Jesse Puljujarvi skated with two coaches on Monday in Edmonton, the Oilers trainer watching like a hawk from the seats above.
His drills weren’t about skating the length of the ice and blasting a shot, but instead a series of circles, and tighter turns, as he rehabs from surgery to correct a problem on both hips. He used pucks not in the traditional sense, but as pylons to be skated around.
Swirling, turning, looping. Returning to the place he started, and doing it over again.
This is the metaphor for the career of a No. 4 overall pick who is in limbo, circling somewhere between the ‘B’ word (bust), a young player who may be ready for that boost a second organization can give him. Or is he simply a 21-year-old who just needs some consistency in his handling to find a niche that he can use to find some traction in the National Hockey League?
Some young players survive the vortex and stay on the team that drafted them, like Sam Bennett has done in Calgary, or Jake Virtanen in Vancouver. Others, like a Dylan Strome, need the inspiration a trade provides to begin to find their potential.
We spoke with people around the hockey world — including Oilers new GM Ken Holland and Puljujarvi’s agent Markus Lehto — to get a read on what lies ahead for the six-foot-four Finn, who landed in the Oilers’ lap at No. 4 when Columbus selected Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall in 2016.
Vancouver drafted Olli Juolevi next. He hasn’t played an NHL game yet. Both the Canucks and Oilers wished they’d taken Matthew Tkachuk, chosen sixth by Calgary, a far better prospect than either Finn. Charlie McAvoy went at No. 14 to the Boston Bruins. Ouch!
First, it must be said that Puljujarvi was absolutely failed by the previous Oilers administration, led by fired GM Peter Chiarelli. They were too late on getting him help with his English; they likely brought him over from Europe a year too soon; they should have given him more time in AHL Bakersfield; they left him far too often to his own devices, a teenager far from home in a foreign land with a foreign tongue.
But the player bears some responsibility as well. It hasn’t come easily for him in the NHL and he hasn’t worked hard enough at his game. By all accounts, he has been waiting for good things to happen, rather than working on his craft so it can reach a place where it will meet success.
Finnish journalists and hockey people who have spoken to Puljujarvi in his native have told me that he lacks drive. That he doesn’t seem ready to put in the concerted effort he’ll need to become an NHL regular.
Holland has yet even to speak with the young man, though he has talked twice with his agent.
“The toughest thing to gauge about a young player is how they will handle adversity,” Holland said. “They’re all the best players on their team in Bantams, Midgets, at the World Junior (where Puljujarvi was named tournament MVP). Most haven’t had any adversity when we draft them. They’ve never had to handle it.”
Puljujarvi is in that exact spot today.
Lehto, his agent, told us back in February, “when the player isn’t trusting anymore… ‘Do these guys really want me here? Do they really trust me to become a Top 6 guy? A Top 9 guy? An offensive player?’ The player is uncertain.
“Are we reaching the point that for the team and for the player, it might be actually be beneficial for going different paths, different routes?”
Today, with his player needing to sign his second NHL contract this summer, Lehto is still wishy-washy on Edmonton. A new GM and coach can’t hurt, he says, but maybe it is still too late for Jesse Puljujarvi and the Oilers.
Holland, on the other hand, will take his “stability” mantra that he has said over and over again when asked what the Oilers need from him, and apply it to the player. The minors are out of the question, in our opinion, for a player who has received interest from the KHL.
If the player asks for a trade, Holland might oblige. Puljujarvi’s market value could inhibit that however, as no GM would flip a No. 4 overall for a fourth round pick. Maybe he becomes an add-in that solidifies a bigger deal, but there are no favours to be doled out here, only an opportunity under new coach Dave Tippett to slowly morph into a depth player, the way Bennett has in Calgary. Then see where that role takes Puljujarvi.
Assuming he is still Oilers property, there will be no Top 6 job awaiting Puljujarvi in Edmonton in the fall. More likely is a steady role on third-line right wing — a place to learn how to be an NHL player, without the pressure to produce points or support an elite centreman.
Holland needs to acquire a veteran centreman who can spend a season with Puljujarvi, both dragging him into the difficult areas of the game, and providing him with some consistent offensive opportunity. No more spending two games with Connor McDavid, three games with Kyle Brodziak, and then a couple as a healthy scratch. What Puljujarvi needs is 82 games as a third-line winger and a chance to learn how to play the NHL game.
If an injury means a call-up, then fine. If he masters the third line and moves up?
But the best thing would be for Puljujarvi to play 82 games with the right centreman, and learn how to play and practice like a pro. Be a positive player every night. A player the coach can trust.
Well, let’s get there first. Then we’ll talk.