How Jesse Puljujarvi is blossoming into a star for the Edmonton Oilers

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) battle for the puck during first period NHL action in Edmonton on Thursday, March 18, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

By the raw boxcar stats, Jesse Puljujarvi is not setting the world on fire in the month of March. He’s scored twice and added an assist, largely on the back of a one-and-one performance against the Flames on Wednesday night, and that wouldn’t be enough to raise even an eyebrow of a fan from any of the league’s other 30 teams.

But if you’ve been watching the Oilers enough, big No. 13 seems to have moment after moment where you go “Huh … it really feels like there’s something here with that kid.”

Edmonton’s game Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets was a game where both teams were on the second half of a back-to-back and had travelled, with both landing in Edmonton close to 1 a.m. And boy, did the play reflect that. It looked like most players were stuck in mud, with offensive zone possessions largely consisting of high-to-low passes with two forwards standing near the front of the net, a shot, and no second chance opportunities. But there was Puljujarvi, just about the only player with some pop in his step, hunting the puck with a verve not normally reserved for your average mid-season slog.

His ice time reflected it.

Puljujarvi’s TOI season-high at even strength going into Thursday was 17:40. Head coach Dave Tippett added a full 1:21 on to that, with the big Finn surpassing the 19-minute mark for the first time all season. His total of 19:31 was the second most he’s played in any game over the past three seasons.

When I mention “moment after moment” where you think there’s something there with the kid, it’s all over the rink. The latest was Thursday night, where the puck went to the point and Puljujarvi made the instinctive (and correct) decision to go to the net. Unfortunately (for the Jets player), Dylan DeMelo was already occupying that area of the ice, so Puljujarvi put a little of his weight into a push.

It looked like a front-door greeting scene where a family’s Great Dane was excited guests had arrived and tried to jump up and lick the face of an incoming six-year-old.

But it’s more than just size.

Last game it was his puck-hunting that I really liked. Here are three clips, with the most telling being the third one.

First, he backchecks to help create a turnover, swings down the middle and gets the shot … but it’s his reaction to the missed shot I love. He doesn’t look up to the heavens in frustration, or pull back and let someone else get it, he jumps right back into the play to try and get it again.

There are defensive moments.

We’ll talk more about these plays when we get to his defensive stats.

But more than anything, there are flashes of offensive ability paired with his natural gifts (size, skating, and hands) that make me imagine him four years from now as a 26-year-old -- it’s really hard to see a world where he doesn’t get a better grip on his tools and become a really effective NHL player. I see his ceiling as a two-way guy who scores 25-35 goals and moves the needle in a positive direction without needing the Connor McDavid cheat code. The kid’s on pace for over 20 goals this season, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see more in a normal season when he’s a year older.

As you can see in these clips from the past 10 games or so, he gets himself in pretty good spots. I’d bet he comes to realize that shooting from distance unscreened is relatively pointless, and that his bread-and-butter is going to be around the blue paint.

You’ll be pleased to know that Puljujarvi’s progression comes through in the numbers, too.

Pick your advanced category of choice, and he’s among the best on the Oilers. In terms of expected goals percentage, he’s second only to Connor McDavid, and just barely. By the percentage of shots that go at the opposing net when he’s on the ice (Corsi), the top four goes McDavid, RNH, Puljujarvi, then Draisaitl. Basically everything that’s a percentage (using not just offence but defence, too) shakes out well for him.

It turns out his defensive impacts are insanely positive for the Oilers. Look at his impact in the D-zone at even strength for them so far this season (blue – meaning fewer shots against – is better):

There’s just an iceberg around the crease when he’s been out there this season. That minus-12 per cent there, that’s the impact he has on expected goals against for the Oilers as best we know how to measure it (this matches up nicely for the players you think of as the best defensive forwards in the game, like Patrice Bergeron, Ryan O’Reilly, etc.).

McDavid, RNH, and Draisaitl have posted numbers in that stat category of plus-6, minus-1, and plus-4 in respective order. (McDavid and Draisaitl do so much offensive damage their defence barely matters -- particularly by public perception -- as we saw with Draisaitl winning the Hart last year.) On a team not known for defending, Puljujarvi’s impact there is near Selke-level.

I know he’s playing with McDavid, but his Corsi with McDavid against elite competition is over 53 per cent. Without him, and still against elite competition, his Corsi is still 50 per cent (these numbers are via Puck IQ). When both players are on the bench the Oilers’ Corsi against top competition drops closer to 46 per cent. Puljujarvi’s a part of the solution in Edmonton.

He’s certainly reaping the rewards of having a generational talent for a linemate, but I’d argue his contribution to that line is not just his offensive output, but in keeping it playing on the right half of the rink.

Puljujarvi’s progression may have been slow, but it’s at a point where he’s currently good, and his room to grow seems immense. It’s impossible to watch him play and not think there’s more to come. He seems to be coming to grips with his size, he’s got pop in his step, and those things combined make for a pretty desirable combo.

The best is yet to come for Jesse Puljujarvi.

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