EDMONTON — It’s always been about time and place for Jesse Puljujarvi, right back to that fateful day that he was supposed to have been drafted at No. 3 by Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, but somehow was still there at No. 4 for the Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers were in the right place at the right time. Or maybe they weren’t.
Somehow, this six-foot-four specimen was always out of sorts in his first tour through the NHL, and when 2019/Edmonton turned into 2020/Oulu Karpat, we wondered if time and place would ever come together for Puljujarvi and the Oilers.
Well, he may be late but Puljujarvi is here and looking like the guy we thought he’d be when he lifted that MVP trophy at the 2016 world juniors.
As fast as he is powerful, as skilled as he is physical, Puljujarvi’s fingerprints were all over Sunday night’s dramatic, last-second 4-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets. Right down to his spot in the blue paint screening Laurent Brossoit as Leon Draisaitl blasted home the winner with 0.7 seconds left in the game.
Puljujarvi was, finally, in the right place at the right time.
"Of course, it's good — nice to be on in the final minute when we're trying to do the winning goal,” he said. “I mean, what can I say? (If you) work hard good things happen.”
They simply weren’t expected to happen this quickly for Puljujarvi, who returned from a year away in the Finnish Liiga, where we watched him drift home a stream of 25-foot wrist shots past below-average goalies.
“How does this game translate to the National Hockey League?” we wondered. Well, it turns out it does not translate at all.
Back in North America, Puljujarvi brings the puck to the net front. There are no wide loops and long, drifting wristers. Just straight-ahead Fred, a quick, bullet-like shot and a winger who looks like he could become mighty useful accomplice for one Connor McDavid.
“You get older and you get that power — what you need to play good in the best league in the world,” said Puljujarvi, now 22. “It’s small ice (here) and there’s not that much room. So you have to go to the net. I'm a big guy, and I think right now if I play with Connor and Nuge (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), one guy has to be at the net. I just have to be strong there and get those loose pucks and it's a little bit different game.
“Like, you get older all the time. You have to change a little bit your game. It’s better and better this hockey every year.”
Of course, the sexy, high-draft pick dominates every Canadian market, whether he arrives closer to being impactful like Jesperi Kotkaniemi in Montreal, or turns out to be a good bottom-six player, like Sam Bennett in Calgary or Jake Virtanen in Vancouver.
The fans, their impatience with management is unilateral. “Put him on the top line! Give him an opportunity to play with our best guys!”
But inside the machine, the player hasn’t ticked off any of the boxes that a player must achieve before a coach can look the rest of his roster in the eye and hand him a spot next to McDavid. Coaches don’t just put Nail Yakupov on the top line when he can’t figure out a basic game plan — when he has no clue where to be on the ice — and they didn’t trust Puljujarvi when he nodded his head to pretty much every instruction, despite the fact he understood maybe 25 per cent of them.
“It starts off the ice,” Draisaitl said of the change in Puljujarvi. “He seems more engaged, so obviously the language helps a lot. It’s impressive that he’s come in and been so open with everyone. And on the ice he looks stronger, he skates better. It comes down to confidence.”
It’s true at every level, in every league in every country: You don’t have confidence, you don’t succeed.
That’s why earning the spot on McDavid’s right side — rather than having it handed to him because of his draft order – has put Puljujarvi in a position where he can make this work.
“He’s a more mature player,” head coach Dave Tippett said. “He’s fitting in the room more, he’s at ease with the language. He knows he’s a good enough player to play in the league now, and he’s going about the business of proving it.”
The plan was to play Puljujarvi next to steady centreman Kyle Turris while he learned the game. The problem was, the kid was carrying Turris, and two lines above Zack Kassian was sleep-walking through the first two weeks of the season.
Losing changed the plan, as it always does.
“I had no timeline on it,” Tippett said. “I just wanted to make sure he understood the way we wanted to play, wanted to get his feet under him. He’s just played well enough that it was time for him to get a shot there.
“But I think he’s coming; I think he’s coming. There’s lots of upside there. A big, strong player who is going to be good for us.”
Puljujarvi only has two assists in seven games, but it’s not about points right now. Just the way it wasn’t about pedigree when he was here last.
In Winnipeg on Sunday, Puljujarvi played 17:33, had six shots on net, assisted on one goal and screened the goalie on the winner. His fancy stats were through the roof and he passed even the crankiest eye test by a mile.
Puljujarvi looks at age 22 the way we’d hoped he would at 19.
So it took a while.
Good things are worth waiting for.