Oilers’ Puljujarvi bereft of confidence after another soul-crushing night

Nino Niederreiter book-ended the Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Oilers with a pair of goals.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Agent Markus Lehto had come to watch two of his clients Friday night in Raleigh — Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi and Carolina’s Teuvo Teravainen. One had 24 shifts and nearly 18 minutes of ice time, while the other rode the pine, finishing with 14 shifts and 9:31.

We’ll let you guess which was which.

The Hurricanes won by a 3-1 score, and another soul-crushing night passed for the 20-year-old Puljujarvi, untrusted, unused and unimproved. He is bereft of confidence, and two management people from different organizations observed as much watching him play Friday.

“Of course we would like to see him play 15, 16 minutes every game. Getting some power-play time,” Lehto told Sportsnet between periods in Raleigh. “A lot of the other forwards are getting their ice time, getting into a rhythm. Feeling like they’re in the game.”

Puljujarvi has never got there with Edmonton. Not for more than two or three games in a row.

“That’s a little bit of an issue,” Lehto admits. “Look, I’m not the guy who is going around playing coach or general manager. It’s a two-way street.”

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When it comes to an Oilers organization that promises to start doing things right, as they seek out a new general manager to replace the fired, tired Peter Chiarelli, Puljujarvi will be the canary in the coal mine.

Will they trade him for pennies on the dollar, losing their umpteenth trade in a row? Or will the management team make a statement that, from this point on, they are going to develop their prospects properly, hit the reset button with Puljujarvi and send him to their farm team in Bakersfield.

Lehto was skeptical. Perhaps, he intimated, that ship has sailed.

“It’s kind of hard for me to think you can hit the reset button,” mused Lehto, who spoke briefly with team president Bob Nicholson Friday when the two ran into each other outside a Starbucks near the hotel. “Going to the American League… Jesse was already there. There was a great plan, then things changed…

“I think it’s hard to reset,” he continued. “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.

“Are we reaching the point that for the team and for the player, it might be actually beneficial for going different paths, different routes?”

He looks at you and shrugs. His palms are facing up.

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The Oilers are in control here, and the question should be asked: do Nicholson and interim GM Keith Gretzky owe it to the incoming GM to hang on to Puljujarvi so he may decide the player’s future with the Oilers?

We would say that, yes, they do owe an incoming GM that much.

Puljujarvi’s entry-level contract expires after this season, but he is a restricted free agent — Oilers property to do with what they prefer. And although they will listen to any offers, it’s folly to think that a player who has 17 goals in 139 NHL games will return anything close to the No. 4 overall draft pick that he cost to attain.

It’s a trade simply waiting to be lost, if you’re Edmonton.

“I’m sure he gets frustrated when it’s not going his way. When you don’t get points, you lose your confidence,” said Carolina’s Sebastian Aho, Puljujarvi’s linemate from that fabulous Finnish team that won gold at the 2016 World Juniors. “It’s natural for everyone. It’s the human mind. I know he’s a good player. I’ve seen it.”

The Oilers outshot Carolina 41-27 on Friday, but scored just once when Leon Draisaitl buried a two-on-one pass. They carried the play and outshot the Pittsburgh Penguins two nights before, and lost that game too.

“Yeah, whatever,” said Connor McDavid, who is growing impatient on a team that has won one of its last 10 games. “We’re generating chances but we’re not finding a way to score.

“We’ve been doing this since the break, minus one or two games, where we play the right way but can’t seem to find a balance. Lots of chances and shots only gets you so far.”

The playoffs have gotten away, and the rest of the season will be a dreary slog for McDavid and Co. in a city that’s fed up with losing.

Meanwhile, in Bakersfield, the farm team rode a 13-game winning streak into play Friday. There, a bunch of young 20-somethings are having a blast, learning how to play, and learning how to win.

It is criminal that Puljujarvi is suffering through Edmonton’s losses as a bit player, when he could be starring in Bakersfield’s wins.

We suspect that will change shortly — one way or another.


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