Jesse Puljujarvi

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Oilers’ Jesse Puljujarvi bouncing back strong from AHL demotion

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It wasn’t the easiest start to a career, but Jesse Puljujarvi of the Edmonton Oilers has used an AHL demotion to take hold of a regular NHL spot this season.

The No. 4 overall pick from the 2016 draft played 28 games last season in Edmonton before being sent down to Bakersfield for the rest of the year. It was the right move by general manager Peter Chiarelli, even though it should have happened earlier than it did, especially when you look at just how much his ice time had been declining.

Fast forward to training camp this past September and the 19-year-old Puljujarvi still needed some more seasoning in the AHL. Head coach Todd McLellan said at the time they expected him to be one of their nine-best forwards and weren’t willing to keep him up with the big club to be stuck on the fourth line.

“We didn’t feel like he won that position and therefore we wanted to get him to Bakersfield and have him start the season there and get him working on his game,” McLellan said after camp.

Puljujarvi got a second chance in November when injuries forced an opening on the Oilers’ right side. “He’s not going to be our savior,” McLellan said. “Everybody else has to contribute and help him feel comfortable.”

Had it not been for injuries, it was anyone’s guess when Puljujarvi would have received another shot. He wasn’t exactly lighting it up in the AHL with a goal and five points in 10 games. The call up was basically a test. We need a body on the right wing. Show us what you got. The answer so far has been a passing grade: nine goals and 14 points in 30 games.

Using his size — 6’4, 211 lbs. — Puljujarvi has positioned himself in and around the net more compared to last season and it’s reflected in where most of his 80 shots have come from, as HockeyViz.com shows. He’s also shooting more and is currently second in the league in shots per 60 at even strength (11.77), per Natural Stat Trick, up from 7.27 a season ago.

The production has resulted in more ice time, which is up three minutes from last season. As a young player, it’s common for the points to dry up and have that drought affect your play, but that hasn’t been the case for Puljujarvi, something the coaching staff has noticed.

“He’s played well. He’s played confident,” said McLellan earlier this week. “The big test for him is that he went dry for five, six, seven, eight games without anything. Was he going to regress and lose his confidence? I thought he looked very confident the other day so that tells me he’s continuing his growth and he’s able to fight off those negative demons, if you will. As a result, he gets a little bit more time on the power play and we’re trying to position him where he can use his shot somewhat. He’s really starting to understand the systematic part of it and he’s been fun to be around the last little bit because he’s believing in himself and everyone else is believing in him.”

On and off the ice, Puljujarvi has shown an infectious personality as he works on his English. The hanging tongue when he skates? “That’s my thing, I don’t know why I do it.” Videobombing Connor McDavid while eating pizza? “That’s one time!”

Then there was the one afternoon during Edmonton’s bye week where Puljujarvi hit up a local outdoor rink and ended up playing some shinny with a couple of stunned young fans, leaving them with some photos, a signed stick and plenty of memories.

“I just wanted to go outside and do something. It’s always fun to skate,” he said.

One thing to take out of an Oilers season that hasn’t had a lot of positives is Puljujarvi’s emergence. He took advantage of an opportunity and it appears as if his days in Bakersfield are behind him for good.

“The sky is as tall as he wants it to be,” said Connor McDavid. “He’s big, skates well, is confident, has a great shot. But I think it all goes back to his size. He’s 6-4, still young, trying to (grow) into his body. He’ll be that solid-on-his feet, good puck-battle guy. Good in front of the net. The sky’s the limit for him.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.