Jesse Puljujärvi showing he belongs after bumpy start to NHL career

Jesse Puljujärvi
Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Jesse Puljujärvi’s first few seasons with the Oilers didn’t go as planned. He was disappointing on the ice and the team was disappointed in the No. 4 overall pick from 2016.

Maybe another year to develop and mature in Finland would have been the right route, but that’s now all in the past. After three seasons spent between Edmonton and AHL Bakersfield, then a year-and-a-half back in Finland with Kärpät, the 23-year-old Puljujärvi has established himself as a bonafide NHLer and a key piece to the Oilers’ hopes.

“He was a young kid, thrown into the fire, and didn’t really know what he was doing out there,” said Oilers captain Connor McDavid of Puljujärvi’s early days in Edmonton. “Good for him for taking some time, and trying to figure out the game. You can just see his confidence rising each and every day.”

Look at Puljujärvi’s impact during Saturday’s 5-2 win in the Battle of Alberta over the Flames. McDavid got the headlines with his 10th career hat trick, but the Finnish forward made an impact with a goal and two assists. The goal was his second in as many games and gave Edmonton a two-goal cushion early in the third period.

One noticeable change is Puljujärvi using his 6-foot-4, 204-pound frame more in a vital part of the ice — in front of opposing goalies. The Oilers coaching staff encouraged him to make that area his home as Draisaitl and McDavid work their magic in the offensive zone. That strategy worked well last season if you take a peek at his goals-for heat map via Icy Data:

via Icy Data

A resurgence at home

When Puljujärvi went back to Kärpät for the 2019-20 season he scored 24 goals and recorded 53 points in 56 games. Those numbers led the team and put him top five overall in Liiga. After putting up seven goals and 12 points in 16 games last season in Finland, he rejoined the Oilers as they prepared for a January start to the 2020-21 NHL season.

Playing with McDavid as his center, Puljujärvi posted 15 goals and 25 points during the shortened season. The difference in his game and his growth was noticed early on in his return to Edmonton.

“Ever since the start of camp last year he’s started building himself to be a good NHL player and his confidence continues to grow and his game continues to grow,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett. “He’s playing in a lot of situations, playing with those big guys and he puts a lot of work in the game. He can shoot the puck well, as you’ve seen. His skill set is really strong.”

It didn’t take long for Puljujärvi to show that last season wasn’t a false start. He scored four times during the preseason and has two goals and four points through two games for the Oilers this season.

Puljujärvi is scheduled to become a restricted free agent next summer, which should land nim a nice increase from his current $1.45 million salary. Playing alongside superstars like Draisaitl and McDavid can’t be easy, but he’s found his role on the Oilers’ top line.

“He just feels like he belongs,” Tippett said. “He feels like he belongs in the league. He feels like he could be a good player in the league.”

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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.

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