EDMONTON — There was a time, not long ago, when Jesse Puljujarvi would have made the Edmonton Oilers’ Opening Day roster off a game like this one.
A goal roofed off a lucky bounce behind the Winnipeg Jets net, another when the rebound of his shot was batted into the Jets goal by a defender’s arm, and an assist on a Connor McDavid solo effort. A three-point night for the No. 4 overall draft pick of 2016 is surely welcome, but thankfully on this Oilers club, no one is telling Puljujarvi to go buy a house in town.
“This sport is all about confidence,” Puljujarvi said post-game to Finnish journalist Jouni Nieminen, who provided translated quotes. “It’s been hard at times. Last season I had some tough times. But I think little by little, if I work hard every day, there is is a reward for all that in the end.”
Puljujarvi grew up in northern Finland, where English is rarely spoken. So unlike the Helsinki kids he did not study English in school, and arrived in North America a year ago with very little understanding of our language.
Today, he is confident enough to have waved off an offer to use teammate Jussi Jokinen as a post-game translator after the Oilers defeated the Jets 6-2 to move to a perfect 5-0 this pre-season. Had his English been as strong as his spirit, however, we’d not have needed Nieminen’s help on this file.
“Last year I talked a lot about Jesse’s adjustment — the language, the culture, being 18,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan. “He’s beyond that now. I’m glad he pushed Jussi aside and said, ‘I can do this.’ He’s accepting more responsibility here. Even his positional play is more responsible this year, to this point.”
It was a brilliant bit of coaching on Saturday night that turned a forgettable evening into a confidence builder for Puljujarvi, who is at his second NHL camp yet still with much to prove to avoid a start at AHL Bakersfield.
After an ineffective first period, the six-foot-four winger had scarcely played in a second period riddled with penalties. So late in the frame McLellan slotted Puljujarvi into Ryan Strome’s spot next to Connor McDavid and Patrick Maroon.
“I thought Ryan had to get a little bit harder, a little bit more competitive. So it sent him a bit of a message, let him understand how we do things,” McLellan said. “And (he was) trying to get Jesse going. Hopefully the two messages were strongly sent. One got the benefit, the other has got to be a little bit better.”
Today, the Oilers are a very good team — a legitimate Stanley Cup contender with a Top 6 full of players whose games are far more refined than the young Finn’s.
They will play games late in the season, and (they hope) late into May and June, where maturity and professionalism will be paramount. Where goals are earned on the back of successive battles won and mistakes not made, and series turn on the fundamentals defined under the heading “being a good pro.”
Against a pre-season Jets lineup dotted with minor-league players, Puljujarvi got some breaks and found some confidence. He’ll take it, and the buzz that comes with that.
“I still have to work on man-to-man battles, to be able to win them,” he admitted. “And to put the puck in the net quickly as the goal chances happen so suddenly.”
“It was good for him,” said McDavid, who perfectly fulfilled his captaincy by taking a vulnerable young prospect on his wing and helping to build him up. “He’s a young guy and confidence is everything. Feeling like you belong in this league and knowing that you can compete against these guys and be successful…
“For any young guy that is the true battle, and hopefully this gives him a lot of confidence.”
The hockey world heaps the pressure on these young players, based on projections that caused them to be drafted as high as Puljujarvi was. In Columbus, the player chosen one spot ahead of him, Pierre-Luc Dubois, also had a couple of pre-season goals the other night.
He is also considered less than even money to stick in the NHL this fall, though while Puljujarvi can be sent to the AHL and learn to be a pro, Dubois must be returned to his junior club.
There is immense — and, if we may say misguided — pressure on these teenagers to perform alongside men, or risk being labeled a bust. It’s one of hockey’s most foolish personality traits, but when you are that kid, it is also a reality.
“You’ve got to remember, he’s 19,” cautioned McLellan. “This is a young man who is still figuring some things out.”
My prediction? He’ll figure those “things” out in Bakersfield, at least until Dec. 1.
Because Puljujarvi’s game isn’t ready, and finally the Oilers are good enough to admit that to themselves.