Jesse Puljujarvi becoming a hidden gem for Oilers

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and Ottawa Senators. Oilers-Senators stream coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Looking at his production alone (a modest eight goals and 14 points) through 38 games, people might insist on labelling Jesse Puljujarvi a “bust.”

Yet, as Justin Bourne argued a few weeks ago at Sportsnet, Puljujarvi passes the “eye test” with flying colors.

It’s impossible to watch him play and not think there’s more to come. He seems to be coming to grips with his size, he’s got pop in his step, and those things combined make for a pretty desirable combo.

You might need to squint, but it’s possible Puljujarvi will put those assets on display during Tuesday’s Oilers – Senators game. Even if he doesn’t end up with much in the box score.

While the goals and assists won’t impress casual fans, the “fancy stats” line up with those sensory details. Just about every metric advances the argument that Jesse Puljujarvi is a highly positive force for the Oilers; he’s just not getting the bounces that will raise more casual eyebrows.

Consider, for instance, his impressive RAPM chart for 2020-21, via Evolving Hockey.

Jesse Puljujarvi Oilers 2020-21 RAPM chart Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

That’s really good stuff, even if Puljujarvi clearly hasn’t fully mastered the whole “scoring thing.”

[OILERS-SENATORS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 4:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Interestingly enough, even that “not scoring a lot” part of Puljujarvi’s game could eventually make him more of a gem for the Oilers.

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s bask in just how delightful it’s been to watch Puljujarvi find his game.

A light at the end of the tunnel following bumpy development road

To put things mildly, Jesse Puljujarvi’s been through some challenges in trying to become a fixture for the Oilers.

As you may have heard, it was quite a surprise when the Blue Jackets chose Pierre-Luc Dubois instead of Puljujarvi at the third overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. But you probably also heard that Jarmo Kekalainen ended up looking really smart.

While Dubois and Patrik Laine looked like quick studies in the NHL, Puljujarvi struggled.

From 2016-17 to 2018-19, Puljujarvi bounced between the Oilers and the AHL. A season ended meekly with hip surgery. Puljujarvi found his future in doubt when Ken Holland took over as Oilers GM, and the winger spent 2019-20 (and a portion of 2020-21) in Finland.

Naturally, the pandemic and contract quirks explain some of what was happening. But Puljujarvi needed to find his game, and it looks like he did.

Jussi Jokinen, a former NHL player and Karpat teammate of Puljujarvi, provided some interesting insight on the young forward’s development.

“I think being a high pick and the other high picks making a name for themselves, and then him going to the minors and not really getting the chance, that was really hard for him,” Jokinen said of Puljujarvi, via NHL.com’s Tim Campbell. “Lots of young players have those growing pains, and that was just Jesse’s time to go through those growing pains and find his way.

“I don’t think anybody was happy. The Oilers weren’t happy, and I don’t think Jesse was happy. For me, personally, I think he left (Finland) too early. I don’t think he was ready to go, especially mentally. The time he spent with us, a year and a half, it was great for him. He got kind of mentally reloaded and I think he grew up a lot in that year and a half he was here.”

Could Puljujarvi be the bargain the Oilers badly need?

In an odd and circuitous way, the Oilers might extract a ton of value from Puljujarvi because of his late-blooming status, and tepid production in 2020-21.

With limited options, Puljujarvi accepted the Oilers offer of a two-year deal that carries a budget $1.175 million AAV. Getting a top-six (or top-nine) forward who can drive play is already a nice find, especially for a cap-strapped franchise like Edmonton.

Some argue that, with heady play like this:

Puljujarvi’s giving the Oilers something akin to “$6M” on-ice value.

Yet, as savvy as people are getting to advanced stats, counting numbers like goals and assists tend to carry the day in contract negotiations. Especially for forwards.

And that might be where things get interesting.

If the Oilers are smart, they might be able to sign Puljujarvi to a team-friendly extension this summer. Depending upon the money and term, the Oilers would be able to lock down some cost certainty with a forward who’s still just 22 years old. Considering the turbulence Puljujarvi encountered already in his career, he might pounce on the opportunity to gain some long-term stability. Even if it means possibly leaving money on the table.

Even if Puljujarvi is always a bit limited at finishing, he might still start to put up bigger numbers. If you recall the way the Oilers overpaid Zack Kassian, it’s clear that anyone who can stick with Connor McDavid — even for just portions of a season — can put together explosive stretches.

Theoretically, the Oilers could extend Puljujarvi before he truly breaks through.

Changing value from those high picks in 2016?

So, it’s possible that the Oilers could turn Puljujarvi into a very nice bargain. At minimum, he’s exactly that for this season, and through 2021-22.

It presents a fascinating juxtaposition between Puljujarvi, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Patrik Laine.

Honestly, it’s tough to tell if Patrik Laine’s existential crises should derail his value. Yet, as recently as March 25, the Athletic’s Aaron Portzline guessed (sub required) that Laine might make $9M per season.

When the trade first happened, people rightly pointed out the short-term bargain the Jets were getting, being that Pierre-Luc Dubois’ cap hit is set at $5M through 2021-22. But being that Dubois is a young, high-scoring center, he’s almost certain to become expensive, and soon.

While Dubois and Laine seem set to make big money, Puljujarvi’s next contract is more of a mystery for the Oilers.

Ultimately, that makes the situation almost as intriguing to watch as the big winger’s actual on-ice development. It would be quite the happy ending if this initially tragic tale ended up working out for Puljujarvi and the Oilers.

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.

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