Looking at Jesse Puljujarvi, you see that wide, youthful grin, and it’s east for non-Oilers fans overlook the disappointing season he had last year with the team that drafted him 4th overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Puljujarvi recorded 20 points in 65 NHL games last season. Standing at 6’4 and 211lbs, he’s not a little guy. He played 57% of his ice time with Milan Lucic, and just 36% with McDavid’s top line, most of which he saw after a return from demotion the the Oilers AHL team. Because we all know the best way to develop a young, talented forward is to play him with a declining Milan Lucic and refuse see that the line just won’t click.
Lucic had a 29 game stretch this season without scoring a goal, stretching from December 23rd to March 5th. He didn’t score again for the rest of the season. Imagine someone tied lead weights to your ankles then told you to run a marathon.
You’d have to be blind to miss Puljujarvi’s talent— and it’s shined in bright flashes across this season, despite a 10 game stint down with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL. It showed particularly in the three point night he recorded on January 20th against the Canucks. There’s a reason he was drafted 4th overall and was awarded MVP at the 2016 World Junior Championships, helping to propel Finland to a gold medal.
Puljujarvi played just over 48 minutes on the power play, second unit only, a little over double from his first season in well over double the games. Worse still, he played negligible penalty kill time. He should be locked into the right circle on the power play time he does receive, yet they have him in the high slot, giving him no chance to showcase the one-timer that some say he needs to develop before seeing real power play minutes.
Some argue that he needs to earn his time on the top line, showcase talent to move up the lineup. It raises questions about how he’s supposed to exhibit top line talent when he’s playing wing on a constantly changing third and second line mix, most often with players who have a combined point share of less than what Ryan Nugent-Hopkins achieves alone.
A better philosophy would perhaps be to give him consistent minutes with the top two lines and force him to prove he can step up. There’s no use waiting for him to work magic when on a line with Ryan Strome and Milan Lucic, the forwards he played the most ice time with, excluding McDavid.
When pressed for options, Edmonton played Ty Rattie on McDavid’s right wing over Puljujarvi. Ty Rattie, who bounced from St Louis to Carolina, then back to St Louis on waivers, before being signed as a free agent by Edmonton on July 1st, 2017, playing a career high fourteen games this season.
It’s all well and good for the Oilers management to complain that they need a depth of talent, but when you refuse to give the talent that you have chances to thrive, it’s understandable that they’re not going to be playing their best game.
And to make it worse, the Oilers organisation didn’t even get the kid an English tutor until this season, which is probably a good representation of the competency level of their management as a whole.
Of course, Puljujarvi has to work for it just as hard as any other player— he can’t coast on draft pedigree. He needs to work hard this offseason and come back for training camp ready to prove that he has the ‘hockey IQ’ that some have criticised him for lacking.
So what are the options for McLellan in October?
There are two paths that the Oilers could take here with the young Finn. The first, and preferable, option is to give Puljujarvi more time on the first two lines. Give him some actual talent to work with and a chance to develop some chemistry with those players, then judge how capable he is.
Puljujarvi may need to fight harder than other wingers to earn his time, but maybe that will help him develop some of the grit and tenacity that McLellan seems to love so much (see, Milan Lucic’s contract).
The other option is to continue to limit his development and pray that he remains a serviceable second/third line winger. Something clearly isn’t clicking, and though reflective of the general state of the Oilers, something needs to change.
Feature image credit: NHL.com