This past week, Oulun Kärpät‘s twitter account announced that Jesse Puljujärvi had signed a contract in the Finnish Liiga. This news follows a summer of Puljujärvi expressing his desire to find a new home in the NHL and using as much of his already limited leverage as an RFA, signaling the likely end of his time as an Oiler.
The Oilers originally drafted him 4th overall at the 2016 NHL Draft, one pick after Columbus Blue Jackets’ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, picked a potential franchise center, Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Puljujärvi, the consensus third-ranked prospect. At the time, it seemed like the Oilers had made away like bandits with that pick, the next day, the Edmonton Sun writing “Edmonton Oilers luck out yet again, take Jesse Puljujärvi at NHL Entry Draft” was their headline.
At the start of his rookie season, cracking the Oilers’ top-six forward group seemed like an uphill battle for Puljujärvi, having to go against the likes of Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, and another young star Leon Draisaitl. Puljujärvi did crack the line-up but wasn’t given a solid chance to succeed. He was played in a bottom-six role, averaging 11:15 of time-on-ice. Ranking him eleventh out of fifteen forwards to play more than 20 games for the Oilers that season. Then, he was sent down just before the 40th game of the season but Puljujärvi only suited-up 28 times. He was a healthy scratch in the games he didn’t play and only scored one goal and registered eight points in the games he did.
First AHL Stint
Puljujärvi found himself in a similar position to Draisaitl a couple of seasons before. He was demoted as well but played nine more games than Puljujärvi and averaged more ice-time at 12:42. This indicated that there was an obvious lack of trust with Puljujärvi, as they both had similar point totals with Draisaitl only scoring one more goal in nine more games and averaging a minute and a half more of ice-time.
After his demotion, Puljujärvi put up solid point totals, playing in 39 games scoring 12 goals and adding 16 assists for 28 points for a point-per-game average of 0.72. Very respectable numbers for an 18-year-old rookie, point production-wise he had similar numbers to William Nylander at the same age. He scored 61 points in back-to-back seasons soon after. Unlike Puljujärvi, Nylander spent another season in the AHL to develop.
At this point, you might be starting to notice a theme. In their respective rookie seasons, Puljujärvi and Draisaitl ended their first NHL stints with similar point totals, even though Draisaitl scored at a lower rate, at 0.24PPG to Puljujärvi’s 0.29PPG. Then, at the AHL level, Nylander scored at 0.86PPG pace and Puljujärvi scored at a 0.72PPG pace. Nylander was then given another season to properly develop and gain confidence at the AHL-level and Puljujärvi was not.
The following season, Puljujärvi was demoted to the AHL after the Oilers’ training camp. It appeared that he was going to receive the proper time to develop and would be given the season or at least a large portion of it, to round out his game. Unfortunately for Puljujärvi, that wasn’t the case. He spent ten games in the AHL, scoring one goal and totaling five points before he was called-up. He would play 65 games for the big club, averaging 13:22 of ice-time per game, putting him at ninth of fourteen forwards (to play more than 20 games) in average time-on-ice. Putting him just above guys like Mark Letestu, Jujhar Khaira, Anton Slepyshev, Zack Kassian, and Iiro Pakarinen. Not that there is anything wrong with these players but, most of these guys are career bottom-six players and some of whom, aren’t even in the league anymore.
Before you get too ahead of yourself, here are some players that had more average ice-time than the budding young star, in his second season in the NHL: Mike Cammalleri, Ryan Strome, and Milan Lucic. If you expand the boundaries of the games played qualifier, you get names like Pontus Aberg, Kailer Yamamoto, and Ty Rattie. Not the names of players you’d expect to be ahead of one of your brightest young stars.
This past year, Puljujärvi started the season playing 11 games and only registering one point. He wasn’t the only one who started this season slow, the Oilers did as well. Both needing a change, he was sent to the AHL and the Oilers fired their head coach, Todd McLellan replacing him with Ken Hitchcock. After four games and four points, the team decided to recall Puljujärvi. He spent the remainder of his short-lived season with the big club, playing 35 games and scoring three goals for eight points. He only played 35 games due to a hip injury, requiring surgery. This was by far the most disappointing season in Puljujärvi’s young career that saw him average only 11:57 of ice-time per game. He ranked eleventh of sixteen forwards in average time-on-ice.
As a result of these last few seasons, we are likely at the end of Puljujärvi’s tenure in Edmonton. So, what happened to one of the league’s top prospects of the last few years? Being sent down and recalled multiple times most certainly harmed his development. He also would play fluctuating minutes night-in and night-out, playing up and down the line-up. Then some nights, he would be a healthy scratch for games at a time. This could cause his eventual dressing to be just another example of instability. These are some of the known factors that could have caused the relationship between Puljujärvi and the Oilers to sour. This has to lead us to where we are now, Puljujärvi signing a contract in Finland. Thus, signaling another time the Oilers could come out on the losing end of a top draft pick.
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