BROOKLYN — When Jesse Puljujarvi and his agent, Markus Lehto, stumbled into Oilers president and CEO Bob Nicholson outside a Starbucks in Raleigh, N.C. on Friday, both sides figured it was as good a time as any to lay their cards on the coffee table.
The team wasn’t sold on trading away the player. His value, they were finding out, was at rock bottom. They know they’ve shorted him on the proper development, and likely owe him another fresh start.
So they asked Puljujarvi and Lehto if they had a real preference where that fresh start occurred.
Could it be in AHL Bakersfield, where the team has won 14 straight, and a bunch of first- and second-year pros are having the time of their lives? Or does Puljujarvi, who is only 20 himself, feel like he needs to get out and get a fresh start with a new team.
To be honest, it sounds like the player and his agent are no different than thousands of Oilers fans: They just want the team to make a smart decision, stick with it, and either develop Puljujarvi properly or trade him to someone who will.
On Saturday, when interim general manage Keith Gretzky offloaded Peter Chiarelli mistake Ryan Spooner for a familiar face in right winger Sam Gagner, it showed the Oilers’ cards.
They’re keeping Puljujarvi, and he’ll be in Bakersfield, likely in time for “Tip A Condor Casino Night” in Bako this Tuesday.
“Look, I’m not the guy who is going around playing coach, or general manager. It’s a two-way street,” agent Markus Lehto told Sportsnet Friday in Raleigh. “It’s kind of hard for me to think you can hit the re-set button. Going to the American League… Jesse was already there. There was a great plan, then things changed…
“It’s like, when the player isn’t trusting anymore… ‘Do these guys really want me here? Do they really trust me to become a top six guy? A top nine guy? An offensive player?’ The player is uncertain.”
Added Lehto, “Are we reaching the point that for the team and for the player, it might be actually beneficial for going different paths, different routes?”
Lehto never really finished that thought. I read that as, he thinks he knows the answer, but he could be persuaded otherwise.
Lehto doesn’t strike me as a hard-liner. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. He knows his player hasn’t improved the way a fourth-overall draft pick should have by now. But he also sees what we all see — an Oilers organization that should have left Puljujarvi in Finland as an 18-year-old, and in Bakersfield as a 19- and 20-year-old.
An organization that doesn’t know how to develop players.
When they fired Chiarelli, Nicholson and Keith Gretzky swore they’d change that. Frankly, it sounded like just another empty promise to Oilers fans, whose team will miss the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 years this season.
But in acquiring Gagner, and hitting the reset button on Puljujarvi, we will admit this much: Keith Gretzky is putting his money where his mouth is.
“I’m just excited for another chance to play in the league,” Gagner said over the phone Saturday afternoon, driving from Providence, R.I. to Brooklyn for a Hockey Night in Canada game against the Islanders. “I felt like, when I got called up earlier this year, I played really well in the seven games I played. It gave me a lot of confidence. I mean, I’m still 29 years old. I feel like I have a lot of hockey left to give.”
Only 29 years old? Can that be true?
It seems like 20 years ago that Edmonton selected Gagner with the sixth overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was part of that first rebuild in Edmonton with guys like Andrew Cogliano and Tom Gilbert.
We’ve lost track of which rebuild they’re on now.
“I started really young. It sometimes does surprise people when I say how old I am at this point,” chuckled Gagner, the original force-fed, rushed-into-action Oilers first-rounder. It’s ironic that his arrival supplants Puljujarvi, who has been rushed exactly the same way, just a decade later.
“My best years were in Edmonton,” said Gagner, who married an Edmonton doctor, and has spent time here every summer since leaving in the summer of 2014. “The passion of the fan base, and the entire community living and breathing hockey, it does a lot for me. I’m excited to be back.”
He says he is more a right-winger now than a centreman, and scouts say Gagner can still help a second unit power play with his puck movement skills, and that one-timer off the left side.
What he’ll have to prove, while Puljujavi simmers in the minors, is that he can stay afloat at 5-on-5.
“For me it comes down to production,” Gagner said. “I need to find ways to produce five-on-five, and whenever I’ve played with other offensive-minded players, I find ways to produce.”