Perhaps the most controversial player on this list — simply due to the up and down nature of his fledgling professional career — Jesse Puljujarvi finds himself 7th in this year’s edition of our Top 25 Under 25.
A relatively tight cluster of votes with some divergence, but a small spread indicates that our crack staff at the Copper and Blue see Puljujarvi as a player of significance despite his well-documented struggles in the NHL. At the same time, for the uninitiated, it’s worth touching on why a recent 4th overall pick would find himself this low on this list.
Puljujarvi came to Edmonton after what virtually everyone — save Jarmo Kekelainen, perhaps — believed to be a steal of a pick, with the consensus top 3 prospect falling to Edmonton after Columbus’ shock selection of Pierre Luc-Dubois. Here’s a taste of what scouts were saying about Puljujarvi on draft day:
Played for SM-Liiga powerhouse offense in Karpat and has developed his way into a core member of their offense. Was MVP and dominant at times at U18 and finished the tournament with a hat trick, as Finland beat Sweden 6-1 to win the gold medal. Forces opposition players to respect his shot, which is elite, and can create plays because of this. Big and strong with a long reach and he just shrugs guys off. Always seems to have good body position whether protecting the puck or defending. Has a powerful skating stride and has another gear when needed - responsible in all three zones - soft quick hands and a heavy shot. Reads the play well and plays well away from the puck. Has excellent hockey sense. Character guy with all the attributes to be a top end player in the NHL - Showed superstar potential.
- International Scouting Service
That sounds like a guy with franchise cornerstone potential. It’s easy to forget just how highly touted Puljujarvi was as a prospect because his career since has been pretty underwhelming. Of course, there are reasons for that I personally believe were out of his control — and I don’t mean to discount the portions of his development that he was able to influence — but Puljujarvi’s professional career does feature a healthy dose of mismanagement from his various handlers.
Puljujarvi was quite raw in his rookie season and only drew into 28 NHL games (while playing an additional 39 in Bakersfield), but flashed some of the ability that saw him climb so high in pre-draft rankings in them while also failing to hit the heights of most Oilers fans expectations. He collected a modest 1-7-8 in his first stint, and while the sample was extremely small, his RAPM numbers profiled like a player who was underwhelming offensively but added real value in both expected and actual goals against at 5v5. Clearly, there was some talent here. Again, remembering the differing sample sizes, look at Puljujarvi’s rookie year (16/17) RAPM against Elias Petterson’s (18/19):
Puljujarvi actually managed to add 1 SPAR — standings points above replacement, a WAR-type metric) — in that stint and, given that he was still a young man who couldn’t speak the language, there were positives to take from his first year.
But there were negatives, too. Puljujarvi only drew into 28 games because at times it was extremely obvious that he wasn’t ready, and yet the Oilers insisted on playing him in the first team. He spent a good chunk of games in the press box as a fringe player on the deepest Edmonton roster in maybe 15 years (no exaggeration, sadly) and almost certainly would have benefitted from another full year in Finland’s top league before coming to North America.
But, alas, the Oilers didn’t play it that way.
The rest, is mostly history. Puljujarvi bounced around the fringes of the first team and the farm team, famously being recalled like a week after he was sent to the AHL in year three for a reset by Ken Hitchcock, before once again being deployed in a role he wasn’t suited for with players who couldn’t help him. No surprise then that his confidence plummeted, his results suffered, and come summer he had no desire to play for the Oilers anymore. I still believe that the decisions the Oilers made in that first season (especially, but in later seasons, too) set the stage for what would be a difficult spell in Edmonton that ultimately saw Puljujarvi refuse to sign his second contract and choose to spend time in Finland to regain his confidence and passion for the game.
Luckily for all involved parties, the homecoming tour was a great success. Puljujarvi spent the bulk of last year at or near the top of the Finnish Liiga in scoring while being easily the league’s most prolific shooter, amassing serious volume:
Jesse Puljujarvi had 395 shots in Liiga last year. 97 more than 2nd. 7.05 shots per game— ️ (@Brock_Seguin) November 23, 2020
obvisouly not going to be like that in the NHL but there’s definintely shot volume potential in 2021.
Arrows were definitely up once more after an excellent year as (still) a young man in a serious professional hockey league.
This season, Puljujarvi began right where he left off, scoring in bunches in his first few games before a combination of COVID-19 disruptions, the effects of signing his new contract in Edmonton — a two-year deal at a fair price for both team and player at this juncture — and inevitable mini-slumps saw him fall outside of the top-30 in both total and per-game scoring. When news broke of Puljujarvi’s extension with the Oilers, Kärpät made moves to replace him immediately, and began giving his replacement some of Puljujarvi’s opportunity with his exodus to North America imminent.
Puljujarvi still boasts a tidy 7-5-12 in 16 GP but I’m sure everyone would have liked to see a bit more offensive consistency to start his second year over there. He also got ejected for kneeing during one of his drier spells of the season, which got him some negative press, too:
Yikes.— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) November 15, 2020
Here was the Jesse Puljujarvi knee to Joonas Lyytinen yesterday. 5+10 game misconduct.
Kärpät - HIFK
C More pic.twitter.com/8O2lAESKqU
Speaking for myself, a noted JP booster, I’m a little disappointed in... myself... for slotting Puljujarvi behind a guy like Phil Broberg but I think there’s a non-zero chance that Broberg gets every chance to succeed while Puljujarvi has some ‘making up for lost time’ to do and, given his advanced age and recent history, might not be afforded the same degree of opportunity.
I would posit that Puljujarvi’s draft pedigree, skill set, relatively successful minor-pro career, youth, maturation (in terms of things like being a more capable English speaker which will undoubtedly help him when communicating with his teammates), and gosh darn opportunity sets him up for a good year with great upside. I have to acknowledge that there’s a chance his recent success in Finland doesn’t translate, but I think that we’re looking at, at minimum, a capable NHL player today who can (and will) contribute at this level in a real way, with the potential for even more. He’s still young, after all. He’ll be on this list for a few years yet.
From the minimal reports we’ve seen so far, Puljujarvi is either a lock to play beside Kyle Turris — who is also looking to re-establish his reputation a little bit this year — or a candidate to draw regular ice beside maybe most gifted offensive player we’ve ever seen in Connor McDavid. Either of those things would be a marked improvement over Puljujarvi’s typically uncertain NHL status, and should provide him with the best platform to succeed in the NHL he’s ever had.