Oilers’ Hitchcock on Puljujarvi’s growth: ‘I want that responsibility’

Watch as Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi turns on the Jets to split the Jets defence and score.

LOS ANGELES — It has always happened too fast for Jesse Puljujarvi.

He left his parents’ home in Finland at as young as 14, they say, and somehow arrived as the MVP of the World Junior Championship long before he was actually the best player coming out of that tournament.

He came to Canada well before he could properly communicate in English, and after only a few weeks Connor McDavid admitted, “I’m there for him if he has any questions, but he obviously doesn’t speak the language very well. So it’s tough to get your messages through to him sometimes.”

And of course, as is de rigueur in Edmonton, Puljujarvi was placed on a National Hockey League roster light years before he was an actual NHL player.

None of these circumstances dictate that Puljujarvi can not catch up, that he can not learn sufficient English, that he can not become as good as his Finnish junior teammates — like Sebastian Aho or Patrik Laine, who have exceeded him in the NHL.

Enter, Ken Hitchcock, who went to GM Peter Chiarelli and asked to have Puljujarvi in his lineup tonight in Los Angeles.

“When you see something that good, and that much (of it), as a coach you want to take responsibility for the growth of the player,” Hitchcock said Saturday. “You don’t want to sit there and watch him play in the American Hockey League.”

The old coach and the young prospect. Down here in Tinsel Town they would make a movie out of these two, and Puljujarvi would struggle for a while, then emerge to score 40 goals in time for the final credits to roll.

In real life, we’ll ask this question: Has Puljujarvi arrived at this point, this opportunity, like everything else in his career — a step too soon?

Assessed Chiarelli: “The takeaway here is that you’ve got a big, strong, forward, and that’s a coach who has those (types of players) historically on his teams.

“There is a willingness, a want, from the coaching side.”

OK, so the last coach — Todd McLellan — never solved Puljujarvi. But he worked like hell at it, as did his assistants — the same ones under Hitchcock. It happens that way sometimes, when a coach on the hot seat just can’t find the right connection with a needy young player.

It is the second coach, however, that defines the prospect.

Hitchcock will demand many of the same things from Puljujarvi that McLellan did, and oftentimes, the prospect hears those identical commands and decides, “Well, I guess those are the parameters for success.”

“I want to be able to work closely with him, and quickly with him, to get the glide out of his game when the other team has the puck,” Hitchcock said. “I want to teach him, work with him, to stay on the hunt longer. Like any young player, he shows the league a little bit too much respect. I want him to hunt (the puck) a little bit harder.

“So, I’m going to stay on him. I’m going to push really hard here.”

Make no mistake: McLellan and his staff worked every bit as hard. And despite the cries of fans to play Puljujarvi with McDavid, Hitchcock’s plan is also to start him on the fourth line and let him work his way up.

The Oilers drafted Puljujarvi fourth overall. They are absolutely bent on having him turn out. And, yes, they’re in a bit of a hurry about it.

He had four games in the AHL before being called back up. Hardly time to develop, though Chiarelli was quick to say on Saturday that the demotion was not about development.

“I saw progress. I saw confidence. He was the first star one night. (Friday) night … he could have had three or four goals,” Chiarelli said. “If you remember when we sent him down, I talked about getting touches, getting confidence. There’s a distinction between development and that.”

So these are the twin mountains over which Hitchcock must guide this Oilers club: They’ve got to make the playoffs, and the Finnish kid has to become a valuable asset.

Easy enough, eh?

“I’m not giving names, but I’ve had a lot of success taking players like Jesse and having quick turn-arounds,” Hitchcock said. “There will be some days when he’s going to get tired of my voice … but there are elements of his game — it doesn’t matter which league he’s playing in — that have to get better.

“I want that responsibility. The top end is awful, awful high. I want to work with that.”

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