Jesse Puljujarvi looks poised to make big impact for Oilers

Jesse Puljujarvi (13) skates at the Edmonton Oilers training camp. (Jason Franson/CP)

EDMONTON -- Here in Edmonton, you might run across Jesse Puljujarvi and his girlfriend, Monica, on the walking trails with their golden retriever Jaffa. Or maybe at an outdoor rink in the winter, where Puljujarvi is known to show up unannounced, like a foreign student looking for a Christmas break skate.

Most recently, Puljujarvi and Jaffa starred in a real life episode of “Who’s Who in Hinterland,” as a bison photobombed a family portrait at Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton.

“We went for a little walk there, and the bison was, like, 10 metres (away). We took a couple of pictures with the bison,” said the Oilers forward, with his trademark smile. “The bison was kind. Nice bison. He didn’t move at all.”

There are no “kind bison” back home in Finland. Not even any rude ones, for that matter.

“Only moose. Big moose, and reindeers,” said Puljujarvi.

A rather large moose himself, Puljujarvi is six-foot-four with a smile stretches just as wide, it seems. He’s an easy spot when you’re hiking, with a Goldie on leash and a tuque, way up there on his head.

“He’s just a great kid,” said Connor McDavid. “He loves the game, loves to play. And it’s impressive to see what he has done with his game.”

This is the story of an NHL player who, off the ice, hasn’t figured out that he’s famous. On the ice, he is only beginning to show signs of a player who realizes how lethal the sum of his skills could be.

“The sky’s the limit for that guy,” said Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton’s second-line right winger, slotting in beneath Puljujarvi on the Oilers depth chart. “He was drafted fourth overall for a reason, and he’s finally starting to show it now. I think he’s got so much more to improve, and he’s going to get so much better this year.

“He’s going to be such a good player here this year:”

Installed permanently on McDavid’s right wing, Puljujarvi is poised for a massive breakout. He has four goals and six points in four pre-season games, and could be the kind of story that hockey execs dream of. It’s that old cautionary tale, that the best trade is often the one you never made.

That Puljujarvi is still an Oiler is a minor miracle, considering how the team mishandled the player through his first NHL stint. If ever there was a player who should have been left to simmer at home in Finland, it was the late-maturing Puljujarvi, whose lack of English made it nigh impossible for him to succeed as a teenager in a strange, faraway land.

As Puljujarvi clearly struggled to assimilate to the North American game, the Oilers spoiling yet another young prospect, the fans cried, “Put him on McDavid’s wing for 25 games. Let’s see how he does!”

Well, he spent a couple of shorter stints on McDavid’s wing, as a 19-year-old, but it was clear then that the young Oilers captain wasn’t interested in running a daycare. Now that Puljujarvi has returned from a year at home in Oulu, and has a 15-goal, 25-point season under his belt last year, he is ready -- and welcome -- to assume that coveted role on McDavid’s right flank.

“He was a young kid, thrown into the fire (too soon), and didn’t really know what he was doing out there,” recalled McDavid. “Good for him for taking some time, and trying to figure out the game. You can just see his confidence rising each and every day.”

As a six-foot-four, 205-pound Finnish right winger, the comparisons to Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen were inevitable on 2016 draft day, when Columbus selected Pierre-Luc Dubois third, gifting Puljujarvi to then-GM Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers. But any similarities between the two have evaporated like steam off the sauna rocks, as Rantanen became a 30-goal, 80-point player, while Puljujarvi walked away from the NHL to reset with his hometown team, Karpat.

Had any of the 31 other GMs offered Ken Holland a first-round draft pick in return, perhaps the Oilers GM would have traded Puljujarvi during his Finnish flight. But the rest of the NHL was just as skeptical, much to Holland’s good fortune.

Now? You wouldn’t trade Puljujarvi for a pair of firsts.

“His attitude has allowed him to make it work. He stayed positive,” said Oilers centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “As tough as it is on a young player coming in -- maybe even more so on a European player -- it’s not easy to crack the NHL right away. There were frustrations -- we weren’t a great team when he came in; he had to learn to take strides.”

Today, Puljujarvi has learned how to use his big frame to create space and win battles. He has confidence to use a superior shot, and affixed with the best player in the game, scoring opportunities will be endless.

He could score 25 or 30 goals this season, and perhaps 50 down the road.

“Fifty?” you ask.

“Why not?” we’d counter.

“The big thing for him now is that he has confidence in himself,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “He’s big, he’s strong and he can skate like the wind. And he has fun doing it.

“That’s what shines, and what fans love about him.”

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