Puljujarvi’s maturation in Finland bodes well for return to Oilers

Chris Johnston joined Writer’s Bloc to talk about the NHL and NHLPA still having work to do in order to start next season, and what the worst-case scenario would be.

EDMONTON — Cody Kunyk had his NHL moment, a one-game career in the 82nd game of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2013-14 season. It was short and it was fast — kind of like Kunyk, the son of former CFL punter/kicker Gerald Kunyk.

Today, Kunyk’s job with the Finnish Liiga’s Oulun Karpat isn’t so much about him as it is about Jesse Puljujarvi, the wayward Edmonton Oilers draft pick who mans Kunyk’s right wing on Karpat’s top line. As the team’s No. 1 centre, Kunyk’s job — as soon as the Karpat players return from a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine — is to furnish Puljujarvi with the pucks he needs to be Karpat’s best player. And by extension, a full-time Edmonton Oiler.

“He demands the puck. He loves to have the puck,” said Kunyk, who grew up an Oilers fan in Sherwood Park, the Edmonton suburb that gave hockey Carter Hart, Mark Pysyk and Gerald Diduck. “It’s easy for me to find him in this league, because he’s skating so fast — he’s got incredible speed. You just have to know that he wants the puck more than anyone else. You’ve got to do whatever can to get him that puck.”

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Kunyk, 30, is speaking over the phone from Oulu, Finland, where he, his pregnant wife and 17-month-old son are weathering their fourth Liiga season. It’s already dark in Finland in November, and with the coronavirus biting one of his teammates, Kunyk and the Karpats are languishing inside their Finnish flats with little to keep them busy.

But he wouldn’t change a thing.

“The world is so big, I’ve seen places that I would never even dream of,” he mused of his career. “If I can keep being able to provide for my family doing this, and able to travel, I’ll do it until somebody tells me I can’t do it anymore.”

If Kunyk can put a small stamp on a player that fans hope will be a star for Edmonton, then Kunyk will have to settle for that as the Oilers moment he dreamed of growing up.

“He’s going back to the team that I grew up watching, and I’ll love to say I was playing with him this year until the NHL kicks back up again,” said Kunyk, who leads Karpat in scoring and has been a top two scorer on his team in three of his four seasons in Finland.

“I remember last year, when (Puljujarvi) ended up signing with Karpat, our first game last year was against them. I had never seen him play for the Oilers. Being on the ice for the first time with him, I knew he was big. But I couldn’t believe how big he was.

“To go full circle, to know everything he’s been through with the Oilers, playing with him has been amazing. He works so hard, all the time. He expects so much of himself, and is very hard on himself. If he plays his ‘B’ game one night, he’ll be the last guy at the rink working out after the game.

“He cares. He loves the game.”

It’s hard to know what, if anything, has changed in Puljujarvi’s game, when measured against the level of competition he faces nightly in the Finnish Liiga. But that last quote — “He cares. He loves the game,” — is a new one that jibes with what we’ve been hearing about the maturation of Jesse Puljujarvi.

It’s not just about getting by on raw talent anymore. The game doesn’t only matter when you have the puck — there has to be more.

“Our coaching staff is very tough on him, preparing him for what’s coming (in the NHL). I don’t think this is his last shot, but he wants to make a good impression this time around,” said Kunyk.

Said Karpat GM Harri Aho, via email: “Jesse is better player and has developed here compared to his first visit to (the) NHL. (He’s) stronger with the puck and his game is more versatile.”

There is a spot waiting in Edmonton on Kyle Turris’ right wing, secured by a new two-year deal between Puljujarvi and the Oilers. But until the NHL fires up again, it is Kunyk — not Turris — who Puljujarvi will count on for pucks that can build his resume.

On a team that sports a 37-year-old Jussi Jokinen, Puljujarvi is clearly Karpat’s most dominant player. Even with one skate out the door.

“For us as a team, he is the biggest part. We need Jesse to stay here as long as he can to help our team out,” Kunyk said. “When that phone call does come, everyone here is going to be very excited. We all want the best for him.

“I have no doubt he’ll be successful. It might not be as quick as everyone wants it to be, but I don’t see him not being successful in the NHL this time around.”

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