Oilers’ Jesse Puljujarvi returns to top line more comfortable in his game

Edmonton Oilers winger Jesse Puljujarvi (98) is feeling more comfortable in his game, and now has a chance to show what he can do on Connor McDavid's line. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — They put Drake Caggiula in charge of The Project almost as soon as it got off the plane from Helsinki.

It was the 2016 Young Stars rookie tournament, and as one of the eldest "rookies," Caggiula was asked to make sure that young Jesse Puljujarvi — who didn’t speak a lick of English — got around Penticton OK.

"I just made sure he’d get to practice on time, things like that," Caggiula said. "Make sure that he showed up at 5 p.m., because he was used to the military clock back in Finland."

As media (and this would also go for fans) we only get to know the parts of a player that he puts out there for public consumption when the dressing room doors are open and the cameras and microphones are flashing red. Many times, that’s only a small piece of the personality pie.

But before that happens, a player needs to have his personality known in the dressing room. In a sport that gave us the cliché about "playing for the guy beside you," there are precious few players who didn’t fit into the greater group but still enjoyed long, successful careers.

"His first year, he barely spoke any English. It makes it really hard to understand what kind of person he is," Caggiula said. "Last year his English was night-and-day different, but he was still coming out of his shell. He was comfortable with English, but didn’t know when or how to say things.

"Now? He’ll chirp guys back, and fire back at guys. It’s starting to get pretty funny. His true colours are coming out nicely."

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Right on cue, Puljujarvi has found an ally in head coach Ken Hitchcock that he never had in his previous boss, Todd McLellan. Is it a different coaching philosophy? Or has the maturation process produced a far more likable game for Hitchcock, one that McLellan never saw?

Either way, the big Finn will start Saturday’s game as the Edmonton Oilers’ top right winger, on a line with Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It won’t be the first time he’s played with McDavid, but it just might be the first time the 20-year-old is ready to succeed in that spot for more than a handful of periods.

"It’s more challenging for a Euro player who’s played in Europe to just come over and play in the NHL," said Hitchcock. "What happens is, when you’re not comfortable in the lifestyle, you kind of stay to yourself. So you’re worried about how you fit in, you’re worried about the length of the season, you’re worried about a lot of things. Now, we’re starting to see his natural personality."

"He’s coming to the mall with us, little things like that," said Caggiula, who lets us inside the room a bit when discussing how a young, English-challenged player begins to break the ice as a teammate.

"The biggest thing (in a dressing room) is being vocal. Not being afraid to talk," Caggiula explains. "Guys say stupid things all the time. Listen to (Matt) Benning. (Zack) Kassian. Me… (We all) say stupid things all the time. Now Jesse is starting to pipe up a lot more. You hear some stupid things come out of his mouth, but it makes for a good environment in the locker room."

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In a hockey dressing room full of 20-something men, the context of "stupid" is not what it might be in a classroom, or an office. In that room, "stupid" is good. "Stupid" is funny. In the hockey room, "stupid" means you show some vulnerability, usually to get a laugh from the guys.

Those same guys will then have a little more patience for a 20-year-old who’s trying to learn the game, than they might if he comes across as individualistic, or entitled. It’s simply the dynamic of a hockey team.

No one wants to play with the guy who is a walking ‘minus.’ Who kills your stat line and costs you ice-time.

But if he’s a good kid who’s trying to learn, they’ll all think. "Well, I was that kid once." And they’ll help you to get past that stage.

Some players show up that way. Others, like Puljujarvi, take a little longer.

Is he there yet? Puck drop is at 8 MT.

We’ll tell you by about 11.


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