Jesse Puljujarvi should have been on the ice Wednesday night, playing for someone on this side of the Atlantic.
Either the Columbus Blue Jackets — the only NHL team with a Finnish general manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, who famously interviewed the unilingual Puljujarvi, then decided against drafting him — or the Edmonton Oilers, to whom Puljujarvi fell with the fourth overall pick in 2016.
Instead of walking into Nationwide Arena however, Puljujarvi was walking out of Oulun Energia Areena in Oulu, long before they dropped a puck in Columbus. That’s where his Finnish Liiga team, Oulun Karpat, defeated Lukko 4-2 on a Wednesday night in northern Finland.
Puljujarvi scored once and added an assist. His 11 goals leads Karpat, a side entrenched in second place in the Liiga. He is a fixture on the top line, and Oilers fans follow the Karpat Twitter feed for highlights of another Puljujarvi goal.
Jesse Puljujärvi toistamiseen!
— Telia loves Liiga (@TelialovesLiiga) October 23, 2019
He is having success in Oulu, a place he should spend the rest of the 2019-20 hockey season, according to two trusted contacts reached this week in Finland.
“He’s building up his confidence,” said Karpat general manager Harri Aho. “It’s coming step by step, and now he got nominated to the national team for the Karjala Cup. He’s on the right track. It’s looking good.”
The Karjala Cup is an annual tournament featuring national teams from Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden, the first gathering of national teams as they begin to develop rosters that, eventually, will form the basis of those countries’ World Championships team.
“It’s going to tell a lot about Jesse’s game,” said respected Finnish hockey journalist Sami Hoffrén, who has watched Puljujarvi’s return closely. “Obviously he’s going to be dynamic in Finnish Liiga, but that’s why the Finnish (national) coach was pretty careful about what he’s going to say about Jesse. He wants to see him in international games. It is a higher tempo.”
Karpat’s head coach, Mikko Manner, is an assistant with the national team, a definite “in” for Puljujarvi as he returns to the comfort of his homeland after a disastrous three-year stint in North America. There, the Oilers failed the player by rushing him along too fast, while Puljujarvi himself did not dig in and learn English, or figure out how to play a game that could please a National Hockey League coach.
He has played just 16 games, and the deadline after which a player playing abroad can not return to the NHL this season is Dec. 15. In order to return, he would either have to sign a contract with Edmonton and rejoin the Oilers, a humbling option, or be traded by Oilers GM Ken Holland, then sign with his new NHL team.
At age 21, finally enjoying some success after three trying seasons, Puljujarvi is finally in the right place, both men agree.
“It was too fast, too soon (in the NHL). The process is ongoing. This is just the start,” said Hoffrén, the lead hockey writer for Ilta-Sanomat, one of two major dailies in Finland. “Let’s say there’s a trade. I don’t see how he could go to a different spot right now, and start all over again.
“He’s a big part of Karpat right now. He’s feeling it. Give him a chance to play with Team Finland, and just enjoy a solid, successful season here in Europe. Why make changes? Everything would be going back to Square 1.”
Of course, Aho — whose son Sebastian stars for the Carolina Hurricanes — agrees.
“In my opinion, it would be best for Jesse to build up his confidence as high as he can, and then come back to the NHL,” Aho said. “I think he needs that one full season on our team successfully, and the national team, so he can gain confidence from international games as well.”
Videos show Puljujarvi, who wears the golden helmet as Karpat’s leading sniper, sifting home 25-foot wristers for Karpat, often on the power play. It wasn’t his shot or scoring ability that was the problem in Edmonton, however. It was his ability to play within a team structure, to be in a predictable place on the ice outlined by the coaching staff, and to take the big looping turns out of his game. And his English.
Avauserän kuvia. Paljon hyvää ehti tapahtua. pic.twitter.com/9wbskEQcE2
— Oulun Kärpät (@OulunKarpatFi) October 23, 2019
Can he learn those things in Finland, on the bigger European ice against lesser competition? That is the pertinent question, where this experiment is concerned.
“His first four or five games, he looked lost,” observed Hoffrén. “It’s a different rink, bigger ice… He was in the wrong place. But, he’s been getting better and better. He’s been dynamic the last 10 games or so.
“In Finland you have more room. That’s always been the factor with Jesse,” continued the Finnish scribe. “In Edmonton he wasn’t comfortable with the stop-and-start play. Positionally there have been some good games and bad games here. Games where he is late, according to where his linemates are.
“But, he’s been more physical, more involved. More intense, overall, without the puck. You can see the confidence building up. Now, he doesn’t look like he’s lost.”
Perhaps this season in Finland can replace the year back home that the Oilers should have given an 18-year-old Puljujarvi. Perhaps all or part of a year in the AHL as a 19-year-old, and Puljujarvi would have been skating on Connor McDavid’s right wing tonight — rather than playing in Oulu next to 38-year-old Mika Pyorala, who played 36 games for the Philadelphia Flyers a decade ago.
“You know, he went a little too early there (to North America),” said Aho. “Maybe one more year here would have helped him. I understand — he was drafted No. 4, Oilers wanted to sign him and the player wanted to go there. But he was still 18. There are a lot of examples of players who stayed one or two more years after the draft (like Aho’s son). Probably it would have been easier for him to play in the NHL after those years.
“But he has learned. Now, he is playing well defensively as well. He has improved that two-way game here.”