Oilers’ Puljujärvi unsure if his place is in the NHL: ‘Maybe I just don’t have it’

Edmonton Oilers right wing Jesse Puljujarvi (13) skates during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y. (Corey Sipkin/AP)

EDMONTON — Jesse Puljujärvi is lost. 

“Twenty games in and I have one goal. It’s sad,” Puljujarvi told Finnish journalist Tommi Seppälä, of YLE news agency, on Tuesday evening. “I’ve been thinking a lot how to do things differently. Right now, I just don’t have the answer.” 

In a wide-ranging interview with Finland’s national broadcaster, Puljujärvi told the veteran reporter Seppälä that he isn’t sure if the National Hockey League is the place for him anymore. 

“Of course I’d like to be a productive top-line player,” Puljujärvi said in his native Finnish, as translated by Seppälä. “But right now, it looks like I can’t do that in NHL. Maybe some other league.” 

Given a chance to discuss, or add to the quotes at the morning skate Wednesday, Puljujärvi politely declined.

This is where he is, where we are with Puljujarvi, the much-loved “Bison King” whose fan base in Edmonton is bigger than all but the top names on the Oilers roster. 

At age 24, he is bereft of confidence. 

Watching Puljujärvi play, his one-touch passes appear initially as a puck-moving tactic. Or is it that he wants the puck on his stick for as little time as possible? 

He keeps his shifts short and safe, seldom if ever transports the puck, and smartly stays on the defensive side of the puck. None of that leads to creativity or offensive production however, which has the No. 4 overall pick in 2016 in search of an identity. 

“I’m trying to find out who I am as a player, since it looks like I don’t fit anywhere here (in Edmonton). I’ve started checking a lot and lead the team in hits. At least that’s some positive,” he said. 

Outside of his one goal in 26 games this season — an October deflection way back in Game 7 of the campaign — Puljujärvi has been shut out in his sixth NHL season. 

Only two other players — Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman — have spent more time at even strength on a line with Connor McDavid than Puljujärvi, who has played over 105 minutes next to the NHL’s leading scorer. The pressure seems to have outweighed the opportunity however, and with just five assists on the season it’s becoming clear that even the great McDavid can not elevate Puljujärvi to greater heights.

“It takes a lot to play with a superstar like him,” Puljujärvi said. “You have to win battles and make plays at the same time. It’s a high-quality game and it takes a good player. You have to be a really good player to play with him. 

“It’s hard to tell why I’m not scoring,” he continued. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I scored earlier and I think now I’m older, more experienced and a better player. Yet I’m not scoring. 

“If you play with Connor, you have to score. Maybe I just don’t have it.” 

Three seasons ago, when Puljujarvi left the NHL and returned to Finland, Ken Holland was holding out for a first-round draft pick in a trade. He never received that offer. 

This past summer, the Oilers GM would have accepted a second-round pick in a trade. No other general manager saw that as fair value. 

Today, Holland looks at Puljujarvi as a younger player who just can’t seem to find his way. 

“It’s a hard league. That’s one of the reasons why I leave young players in the American League as long as possible,” began Holland, when presented with Puljujarvi’s quotes on Wednesday morning. “This is not a development league. This is a league where you’re judged on what you do, and not on potential. So when I hear a player like Jesse saying that he’s lost his confidence, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. 

“And I don’t really have a solution,” Holland concluded. “That’s my response: It’s a hard league.” 

Neither party would speak of what is becoming obvious here, that a fresh start with a new team would be best for the player.

“I can’t make comments on this right now,” Puljujarvi said.

But it is no secret that Holland will try to move Puljujarvi’s $3-million salary in any trade, to clear some cap space. It would help, of course, if the player he was trying to trade was more productive. 

“He’s had chances,” Holland said. “He was eyeball to eyeball with (goalie Igor Shesterkin) in New York, twice. He hit the post and had one saved. I can’t tell you he’s had a ton of chances, but he’s had some chances — some really good chances. He just needs one to go in for him, probably.”

Look him in the eyes, and you know that Holland sees in Puljujärvi what he saw in recently acquired Klim Kostin — a young player who dearly needs a new environment, a second chance.

All those goals Puljujärvi scored from distance in Finland do not translate here in the NHL. Holland’s advice was to get closer to the net in his quest for offence. 

“My take is, if you’re a scorer, the more often you get to the blue paint, get to the blue paint, that’s where the goals are,” Holland said. “Something goes off you; you deflect something; you’re whacking in a rebound. It’s about getting to the blue paint.” 

On Wednesday versus Arizona, with right-wingers Zach Hyman and Kailer Yamamoto both back from injury, Puljujärvi was relieved of the pressure of performing on the Oilers’ top line. He was to play the right side with centre James Hamblin and Dylan Holloway.

“Maybe if you move down the ladder, you get down to the third line or something,” Holland figured. “You get a chance to handle the puck maybe a little bit more. 

“With Zach back, and Yamo back, maybe he’ll get a chance to play down the lineup a bit.” 

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