Why a redefined role could help Puljujarvi to sustained NHL success

Jesse Puljujarvi, right, skates with the puck. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON — Everyone out West has their Jesse Puljujarvi, the fourth-overall pick in 2016.

In Calgary, Sam Bennett — the No. 4 pick in 2014 — has over time turned into a very useful bottom-six winger. He’s not as productive in-season as you thought a top-four pick was going to be, but Bennett has become a driver in the playoffs who has reconciled with the fact he’s never going to be that top-line winger who leads a team in scoring.

So he leads in other ways.

In Vancouver, Jake Virtanen — the No. 6 pick in 2014 — remains the proverbial work in progress. While Canucks fans go back and forth on his value and role, it appears that head coach Travis Green sees a bottom-six player with the skills to play the No. 2 power play, and chip in some offence at a rate better than most third-line players.

When Virtanen has his “come to Jesus” moment and accepts that role, he’ll be on his way to a long, rich NHL career. Just not the career he thought he was going to have, that’s all.

Then there is Puljujarvi, who quietly has been the topic of several meetings between Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland and agent Markus Lehto since the NHL has returned to play. The two added Oilers head coach Dave Tippett and Puljujarvi to a Zoom call in late July meant to build some goodwill and entice the player to resume his NHL career on Edmonton’s roster next season.

"We talked about our team, where we saw him," said Holland, who has thoroughly explored the trade market for Puljujarvi and not found it to his liking.

After contacting both sides, our conclusion is we expect Puljujarvi to sign an NHL contract and return for Oilers training camp in the fall.

At age 22, Puljujarvi is clearly behind both Bennett and Virtanen in his development. He’s played half the NHL games of Virtanen, and he isn’t close to defining a long-lasting role on an NHL club the way Bennett has.

But he’s also two years younger than that duo. The fire to be a top-six, scoring NHL winger still burns bright in the young mind of every top-10 pick, and it will take more than Puljujarvi’s 139 games to dissuade him. To learn that, perhaps he must redefine his game if he wants to enjoy a long NHL career, the way Bennett has.

Or maybe Puljujarvi returns from a season in Finland with more experience, and with a different coach and GM in Edmonton he finds a spot on the right wing next to Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. It could happen, though a more realistic expectation would be for Holland to acquire a veteran third-line centre who would help in the assimilation of Puljujarvi as an NHL player.

He may become a top-six winger eventually. But Holland will try to build Puljujarvi into an NHL player now and worry about his deployment later.

For now, Puljujarvi has re-signed with his hometown team in Finland, Oulun Karpat. It’s an insurance policy, both because he does not have an NHL deal and no one is sure when the NHL will open camp for the 2020-21 season.

He’s currently at Karpat’s training camp and scoring pre-season goals, with a clause in his Liiga contract that allows Puljujarvi to leave for the NHL any time prior to the transfer deadline for players coming from Europe.

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Over the next while, Holland will try to hammer out an NHL contract with Lehto. Puljujarvi’s entry-level contract has expired and the Oilers qualified him at $925,000 to retain his rights. Holland will likely try to get the player for as close to $1 million as possible, considering the team’s cap situation, with a handshake agreement that he will be traded if he cannot find success in Edmonton.

If Puljujarvi signs the deal, he’ll be an Oiler when training camp opens as early as Nov. 15.

At six-foot-four, 200 pounds, the right-shot sniper is a unique player who could speed up the evolution of Holland’s Oilers.

"The reality is," Holland told us this week, "to make changes that can impact the way we play, if I go internally it’s going to take time. If I go externally it will take a bunch of money or assets."

The problem is, Holland doesn’t have a lot of either.

He is light on draft picks in 2020, without his second-, third- or fourth-round picks. And the Oilers cap situation is, like 20 other teams, extremely tight.

As for time, McDavid will enter his sixth NHL season next fall and has, officially, one playoff appearance. Two if you count the disastrous qualifying round loss to Chicago.

The Oilers have an asset that isn’t much use playing thousands of kilometres away, while Puljujarvi has only one place to play if he wants to resume his NHL career.

Call it a shotgun wedding, nuptials are set for Edmonton’s 2020 training camp.

Whenever that may be.

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