Oilers risk flubbing another high-end draft pick

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Not that long ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were ridiculed for selecting Pierre-Luc Dubois with the third pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, allowing Jesse Puljujarvi to fall to the Edmonton Oilers. You don’t have to dig too deep to realize that Jarmo Kekalainen made the right call, or at least appeared to make the right call so far.

While “PLD” settles in as Artemi Panarin‘s co-pilot (for now?) in Columbus, Puljujarvi was in street clothes on Thursday, as his Oilers run hit another low: he was a healthy scratch.

At 20, it’s too early to rubber-stamp the term “bust” for Puljujarvi. Even so, the bumpy, staccato rhythm of his development is frustrating to observe, and it sure seems like the Oilers are stumped.

“His development has to get going to where he has a positive influence on the game every night. And there is still some confusion in how that impact can come,” Todd McLellan said, via Sportsnet’s Mark Spector.

“It’s not always goals and assists — as we’ve seen, there haven’t been many of those. But there are other areas of the game that are important.”

Out of context, this is understandable enough. Objectively speaking, Puljujarvi play isn’t lighting up scoreboards, with just one goal in seven games so far this season, and just 29 points in 100 career games. So, some of this is on the player.

Still, the Oilers aren’t exactly known for making optimal decisions beyond “drafting and extending Connor McDavid,” and it’s becoming increasingly plausible that they’ve squandered another high-end draft resource.

As a reminder, the Oilers drafted Nail Yakupov with the first overall pick of the admittedly cloudy 2012 NHL Draft, only getting four seasons out of the winger before trading him for a meager return. Yakupov now finds himself in the KHL, yet you can’t help but wonder: how much of his struggles fall on poor development in Edmonton?

At minimum, the Oilers have had a tendency to burn through rookie contracts, often with reckless abandon.

Puljujarvi might be the poster child for that problem. He played 28 ineffectual games with the Oilers as a rookie in 2016-17, but also spent plenty of time in the AHL. Puljujarvi also spent a portion of last season in the AHL, although 2017-18 could be seen as his most promising stretch, with 20 points in 68 NHL games.

Again, he’s not alone in seemingly suffering from rushed development. It’s too the point where it’s honestly refreshing when the Oilers show some restraint, like they did with solid-enough defenseman Darnell Nurse.

While Puljujarvi has accrued quite a few games with the big club (it’s somewhat fitting that he was scratched after his 100th NHL game), his linemates have been erratic and it’s not as though he’s been giving many full-fledged opportunities to sink or swim. He averages just 12:43 TOI per game during his NHL career, and his 2018-19 averaged is actually a bit lower at 12:28 per contest.

You don’t really need to burrow through cryptic quotes to wonder if McLellan doesn’t trust Puljujarvi. Looking at the Finn’s lack of opportunities – rarely has he skated with Connor McDavid, and he hasn’t even gotten many chances with Leon Draisaitl – and you can see that the confidence isn’t there. At best, it isn’t there yet. It’s frightening, but reasonable, to wonder if it will ever come as long as McLellan’s behind the bench.

Perhaps that’s why people are discussing some drastic measures.

On TSN’s Insider Trading, Darren Dreger said he believes that things aren’t necessarily coming to a head yet, although he didn’t dismiss the discussion as outrageous altogether.

Citing Puljujarvi’s struggles and the less-than-ideal circumstances (low ice time, irregular linemates), The Athletic’s Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell wonders if the winger would be better served being a big fish in a small pond back down at the AHL level (sub required).

The organization has handled this player poorly. Puljujarvi has far too much skill to give up on, or trade for 10 cents on the dollar. His game has been broken. It might be time to repair and rebuild in Bakersfield. This time next year the Oilers won’t be able to send him to the AHL without waivers. For Oilers fans, the blame game (player, coach, general manager) is less important than unlocking Puljujarvi’s considerable talent while he is an Edmonton Oilers winger. What is best for his development should be the only consideration.

Edmonton holds a lot of sway in how this situation works out, one way or another.

Consider some of the other factors at hand:

  • This team desperately wants to make the playoffs, and the jobs of the coach/GM likely hinge on doing so. Such thoughts complicate the urge to test out a “project” in Puljujarvi.
  • Trading a high-end pick so soon after drafting one is often a recipe for disaster, but that would be especially uncomfortable in this case. Most importantly, Puljujarvi’s stock is at a dramatic low after being a healthy scratch. You also can’t ignore the likelihood that GM Peter Chiarelli fears losing any trade at this point. That’s especially true since he’s been comically bad at assessing future value (*cough* Tyler Seguin in particular *cough this is a really bad cough*).
  • The 20-year-old is in the middle of a contract year.

That’s actually where there could be some serious sunshine if the Oilers – against all odds – somehow get this right.

There’s a scenario where Edmonton signs Puljujarvi to a cheap extension to say “we still believe in you,” give him time to rehabilitate his game, and then he becomes a huge bargain for a franchise that sorely needs value. Imagine, for a second, the Oilers signing him to a Predators-style, forward-thinking contract, only to see him blossom as McDavid’s elusive right-winger?

(Stop laughing.)

***

Right now, this situation is both bad and befuddling. It would be shocking that things hit this low point, if it weren’t for this being a bumbling franchise like the Oilers.

A third NHL season is when people really start to get impatient with a prospect’s development, yet consider that the Oilers really haven’t given Puljujarvi two full seasons of opportunities. While many would grade him an “F” so far, a more appropriate mark is an “Incomplete.”

The Oilers are remedial when it comes to developing all but the most can’t-miss prospects, yet the good news is that they can still pass this test if they get it together. As frustrating as the process has been so far, it should be fascinating to see how this plays out.

For the rest of the NHL, it could also be an opportunity to scoop up a robust reclamation project, like the Penguins did with Justin Schultz.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.