It’s time to talk about Jesse Puljujarvi. Not just the player, but the person. Back on June 24th, 2016, the Columbus Blue Jackets opted to pick Pierre-Luc Dubois despite almost all pre-draft projections having Puljujarvi at #3 behind Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. Because Jarmo Kekalainen had the obvious FInnish and Finnish Elite League connection to Jesse, this created one hell of a talking point and red-flag for Puljujarvi.
Relax, none of that really mattered. Going into that draft, Columbus was taking a center. They tried to trade down to get one with another asset, but regardless of where they picked, a full-time winger was off the table, no matter how good he happened to be. By the time the Oilers got to the podium, all the intrigue had left the building. There was no question of who they would take. They were taking the player full of raw talent who had just put up excellent numbers in a European Men’s league. Make no mistake, there was no better player to take at the time of the selection. It’s fun to think what would have happened had they taken Mikhail Sergachev or Charlie McAvoy instead, but that’s pure hindsight. Puljujarvi was far and away the best player on the board. He had a few flaws, no doubt — most 18-year-olds do — but he also had more raw talent and individual skill than almost anyone in the entire draft.
Now that it’s been almost two years, we aren’t seeing the progression we had hoped. Jesse Puljujarvi has 15 points through 42 games on the season, and lately has been scrounging for ice time. He wasn’t great in the AHL last year, nor has he looked like he’s going to be a star through this year.
I’ll be honest, I’m not terribly concerned with the points this year. I’ve been a Jesse Puljujarvi skeptic for a while now, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the points he’s putting up. I see the skill, there’s not doubt in my mind that he can be a special NHL player, the problems I see are related to his skating and his decisions on the ice. Particularly in the offensive zone. The offensive zone play is important, because that’s where most of the play happens with Jesse on the ice.
All of this is going to be related to his ability to learn, and a coaches ability to teach. Before I could deduce if the problem was Jesse or Todd McLellan, I would have to learn a bit about Jesse’s history. Luckily the internet is filled with people who have one hell of a lot more insight to him than I do. I was able to call upon an individual with ties to Finland and Puljujarvi to help accomplish this. It’s an individual who wishes to remain anonymous, so if you know who it is, please keep that to yourself.
I know you don’t come to an Oilers blog to learn about Finland, but that’s too bad, it’s impossible to talk about Jesse Puljujarvi without talking about the enormous cultural differences. Every part of it plays a role in the player we watch on the ice, so if you’re still reading, be prepared for a lot of non-hockey related information.
Also, full warning right now, this is going to be long. Make sure you have the time to sit and read 2500 words, there are some interesting things.
I had quite a few questions about Finland, and Jesse’s ability to speak English. We all remember Mark Spector’s piece where Jesse implied that he hadn’t yet had an English teacher. Luckily, that in itself was a cultural difference. The Education system in Finalnd, is a lot different than it is here in North America. Individuals start school at Seven years of age and continue until 15 or 16. At this point, instead of continuing slightly more intensive study of the same things they’ve learned over the first Nine years, they are split into either professional/technical education or University preparation. It’s really meant to identify strengths early, and enhance them.
Back to the English. Learning a second language in Finland is mandatory in 3rd grade, it’s typically Swedish. Despite the two countries being side by side, the languages are not even close to similar. They don’t have the same roots, they don’t use any of the same words, in fact, German has more in common with Swedish than Finnish has in common with Swedish. So even learning those two languages is one hell of a task.
Then of course, 5th grade comes around and the students start learning English on top of that. British English, that is. This is where we have to differentiate the difference between learning a language in school, and actually knowing that language. If you’re a Canadian like me, there’s a good chance you had to take French in school. I did, I took it from grade 5 to grade 11. By the time I was done taking it, I had learned enough to ask someone how they were, regurgitate the alphabet, and count to 100. As you can see, it doesn’t end up meaning much of anything. Now we add in the regional dialects and slang, it becomes even less meaningful. I’m sure many Europeans can pick up some American slang from movies and TV shows, but how much Canadian are they going to pick up? One of my friends is from England, even he had trouble understanding what we were talking about, and that’s the same damn language. When you get into hockey and talking about “Dumping it in”, “Being a tough team to play against” and “Accountability” it makes even less sense. I’ll be honest, I don’t even know what the latter of those two phrases mean. Hell, I’ll take it even one step further, I moved from BC to Alberta six years ago. It took a long time for me to figure out that “My old lady” actually meant wife or girlfriend. It’s just something that I’d never heard in the Okanagan.
Back to the English teacher. It sounds ridiculous that Jesse would have been here for the better part of two years and wouldn’t have had one. Naturally Oilers fans exploded over the sheer incompetence of a team that would neglect to get a teacher for their top prospect. There wasn’t really any context given, but none was needed. When you have one playoff appearance in 12 years, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
What Jesse did have however, was an English tutor. The same one who worked with Nail Yakupov. They also had Iiro Pakarainen helping him learn the language both in Edmonton and Bakersfield.
To differentiate the difference between Tutor and Teacher seems incredibly semantic in North American dialect, but for a Finnish person, that’s a huge difference. Teachers are treated and respected like doctors over there. They’re not just the person giving you homework and sending you to the principal’s office for chasing a kid around with a chair over your head that one time, they’re the people responsible for your knowledge.
In this context, a teacher is a lot more formal training. They’ll teach fundamental English, issue assignments, and work to get you to an educated level. A tutor is more for conversational and functional levels. This is what Jesse has had the entire time.
From what I’ve heard about Puljujarvi, and what I’ve seen in interviews, his English is fine. It’s clear that he’s from another country, but he also seems to understand words, even if he’s answering with a smaller vocabulary than his English speaking peers. He’s actually quite the perfectionist in this regard. He lost a lost of confidence early in his career from being bombarded with questions and making some mistakes. Since then, he hasn’t had the confidence to think he knows enough to call himself an English speaker. It’s quite encouraging. Any time I go to another country, it’s either people who live there responding “Yes” when I ask if they speak English, when really they know two words, or it’s people with me who are certain that their five-word Spanish vocabulary is sufficient to claim that they know the language. Jesse appears to be the opposite of this, most people of study are this way. They’ll learn more and more about something only to realize that there is more to learn than they originally thought. The more they learn, the less about something they’ll claim to know. I’m really encouraged by that, and honestly, I think his English isn’t near the problem it’s been made out to be.
The other reason he might not think his English is acceptable is Finnish culture. In Finland, small talk is not a thing. People aren’t talking to you about non-sense when you’re getting your haircut and you don’t have to shamefully explain that you’re about to go home and watch Dateline on a Saturday night when a waitress asks “Got any more plans for the night?” as you pay your bill. If you ask a Finnish person to go to a dinner party for two hours, it’s quite likely they’ll wonder how the hell you’re planning on eating dinner for two hours. It’s just not their thing. Small talk is a conversational skill more than it is a reflection of language ability, there’s no reason to expect someone who has never dealt with this behavior to suddenly pick it up as quickly as the language itself.
And if you thought small talk was tough, well then, lets introduce you to the reporters in the trenches asking you incredibly thought provoking questions! You’ll have to learn from your teammates how to give equally thought provoking answers.
Now, finally, we can talk about the hockey player. He still has all the skill he had when drafted, but unfortunately, a lot of the same flaws, too. I’ll give him credit for his shot, that was a bit of an issue a year ago. He had an unnecessarily long wind up and struggled to get the puck off his stick in a reasonable amount of time. Goalies had way too much time to anticipate the release and stopped his shots quite easily. Now, he has an excellent shot, start to finish. It’s the biggest improvement in his game since the draft, and I hope to see more of that.
The skating issue is a bit more frustrating. He’s definitely fast enough, his stride is strong, it’s the structure and the turning that bothers me. He’s a big guy at 6’4 and 211Lbs, so no one is expecting him to look like Paul Kariya out there, but the angle of his back appears to be causing some problems when he tries to turn too quickly. He skates hunched over a little too much, with not a lot of knee bending. As a result, his center of gravity is a little too high, as well as out in front of him. When he tries to make a tight-turn, he’s very unstable. He’s typically resorted to coming to almost a complete stop to make more than a 30-degree change in direction. That, or fallen over. He really needs to work on this more than when he was in Europe, the size of the ice surface is really going to emphasize this relatively minor, and very correctable, flaw.
I think it’s related to him growing up in bandy culture. Bandy is a mixture of field hockey and ice-hockey. No joke. It’s an extremely popular game in North-West Finland where Jesse grew up, and apparently, he was VERY good at it. Also, it looks like an awesome game. Looking at the game, I see a similar skating style to Jesse’s. Smaller sticks obviously play a huge role in that, still, I would imagine that the people teaching Jesse to skate would have dabbled a few times in that game. With a huge ice surface and less turning, leaning forward like that is going to get you going very fast in a straight line compared to the squat-like skating taught in Canadian hockey schools.
The other issue I have with his play, is his positioning and puck decisions. This is a much bigger issue, but having learned more about him as of late, I am a lot less willing to blame him than I was even a week ago. The best way to show what I mean, is to show what he does when he’s scoring.
On all three of these plays, he’s attacking the slot, playing inside the seam and giving forking the opponents. He makes the other team very concerned about him shooting. Quite frankly, they should be concerned about his shooting, a shooting Puljujarvi, is the best Puljujarvi. The only thing I didn’t like in those highlights was the second goal. Don’t get me wrong, the result is fantastic, but most of the time, firing that cross-zone pass on that angle has a lot more risk than reward.
Guess what kind of thing he’s been doing lately. Last Saturday against the Coyotes, I saw three separate instances where I saw him get the puck in the high slot, skate backwards towards the half wall, and then pass it, instead of going full speed at the net with a shot or drive. The results were: an ugly giveaway, a pass to the defense that then put it into the corner, and he himself electing to put it in the corner. The fact the puck is in the offensive zone as often as it is is a very encouraging sign, but I don’t like seeing him look lost out there. He seems to have most of his success on the rush, through the neutral zone and getting shots very quickly upon zone entrance.
Then I remembered Todd McLellan’s system. It’s a stupid system, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that encourages dumb plays like that. Taylor Hall just caught a lot of flak for allegedly saying that he wasn’t listening to his coaches with the Oilers. I’m starting to think he had the right idea.
Look at Connor McDavid. When he is on the ice, the entire offensive scheme is different. There are more shots from in tight, and a lot less from the point.
Either Connor has full trust from his coaches to do whatever he wants — as he should, or he’s simply ignoring them and doing what he knows as best. It sounds like something that doesn’t happen, but Marc Crawford used to get mad at Peter Forsberg for not buying into his crappy scheme. That was until, Forsberg kept scoring and Marc decided there was no point in trying to fix what isn’t broken.
Jesse looks as though he’s actually listening to his coach too much. It’s a tough place to be. The kid loves being with the Oilers in the NHL, and wants to do whatever it takes to stay up here. From everything I’ve heard, he’s incredibly receptive and very teachable. He’s just putting his faith in the wrong place. Todd McLellan was given a player who scores off the rush, and has decided not to use him in such a way. Lining him up with Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian really isn’t going to solve this problem or lead to any NHL success.
I’ve never doubted Puljujarvi’s skills, I’ve always been skeptical of him ever being a top player. The more I see his usage, the more skeptical I become. All he needs to do is attack the net early, and often, to be successful. Unfortunately, that looks like the last thing on Todd McLellan’s mind.