It seems quite likely that Jesse Puljujarvi has played his last game as a member of the Edmonton Oilers.
There are a number of factors at play here including Edmonton’s salary cap crunch, his status as a restricted free agent, as well as the fact there seems to be an equal amount of mutual frustration from both sides.
When there is this much smoke, there is usually a reason for it.
Assuming the Oilers do move him in the coming days, weeks, or months, it has the potential to be a regrettable move for them and a nice win for the team that acquires him on the cheap. Just how cheap? According to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector this past week, the market for Puljujarvi seems to range somewhere between a second-or third-round pick, which is a price that almost any team in the league should be willing to gamble on.
They should be willing to do that even if the price is higher.
For starters, the odds of a second-or third-round pick (or even a mid-late first-round pick) turning into a player as good as Puljujarvi currently is are low.
There is also the very real possibility that Puljujarvi has much more to give a team than the Oilers have been able to get out of the No. 4 overall pick from the 2017 draft.
The biggest knock against Puljujarvi at this point is that he simply does not score enough given his draft spot, talent, and the fact he has gotten a lot of ice time with the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
He is coming off of a 14-goal, 22-assist, 36-point season in 65 game for the Oilers this past season, which is actually a slight per-game increase in his scoring from the prior year. His scoring over the past two seasons projects out to around 20 goals and 40 points over an 82 game season. Not great, but definitely useful.
There is also the fact that after an outstanding start to the 2021-22 season through 28 games (10 goals, 13 assist, 23 total points) he missed time due to COVID and then was injured in February, so he was rarely at 100 percent in the second half of the season.
All of this is especially useful when you also factor in that he offers more than just his own personal point production.
He is a play driver and a very good two-way player that, statistically speaking, improves the overall play of his team. When he is on the ice, good things happen for the Oilers even if he is not the one actually putting the puck in the net. Edmonton’s two superstars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both see their production increase when Puljujarvi is on their line. That is not to suggest that Puljujarvi is the one driving the success of the line or those two players (because that would insane). But it does help illustrate what skills he does possess that can help make his team better when he is on the ice.
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So while his overall production right now might look disappointing for a No. 4 overall pick, his play-driving ability and still untapped scoring potential make him well worth the (presumably) low cost it would require to trade for him.
But there was also a lesson in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs that teams should be paying attention to when it comes to Puljujarvi.
That lesson was Valeri Nichushkin.
Nichushkin became a force for the Avalanche this postseason, completing a pretty steady rise after signing with the Avalanche a couple of years ago. His play has reached the point where he is going to be one of the most sought after unrestricted free agents on the open market and almost certainly cash in with a huge contract.
But his career did not start off that way, and there are a ton of parallels to Puljujarvi.
Like Puljujari, Nichushskin was a top pick in his draft class (No. 10 overall), and consistently posted strong play-driving and possession numbers without the individual goal scoring or point production to back them up. He even went an entire season without scoring a goal (or recording a penalty minute) over 57 games. In four seasons with Dallas he scored just 23 goals, 51 assists, and 74 total points over 223 regular season games. But his underlying and possession numbers kept pointing to a player that was more useful than the goals and points might suggest and just needed the right role.
Despite that, Dallas ended up buying him out of the final year of his contract, he became an unrestricted free agent, and the Avalanche snapped him up for a bargain price in free agency. Over the following three years he received Selke consideration each year, developed into a strong middle-six scorer that was a key part of one of the league’s best teams, and this season with increased ice time and the biggest offensive role of his career finally blossomed offensively.
The way we analyze hockey is completely devoid of logic sometimes.
When we have an all-offense superstar that is never part of a winning team (usually for reasons beyond their control) they get chided for not doing enough little things right to make their team better. The discussion is usually centered around a narrative that says something like “maybe they need to have their Steve Yzerman moment and sacrifice some offense to be better defensively and improve the little things!”
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That, of courses, is nonsense. Yzerman’s offense dropped because he got older and his team started to win because the Red Wings surrounded him with Hall of Famers.
But when we have a player like Puljuarvi (or Nichushskin before him) that was a top pick and does do the little things, and is good defensively, and does make the hidden plays that lead to success, they get chided for not scoring enough. Not ever good player is going to score 35 goals. Not every top pick is going to be an immediate star.
Sometimes it can all be completely illogical.
Puljuarvi is already a very good player. He might not score enough goals to make you feel warm and fuzzy about a No. 4 overall pick, and he might frustrate you when he does not capitalize on every chance, but he makes his team better and helps create more chances and goals for his team. And that is really all that should matter. Some smart team will realize that.
If the Oilers were smart they would realize what they have before they give it away.
There might be bigger names and more impactful players on the move this offseason (Alex DeBrincat and J.T. Miller come to mind), but in terms of asset cost, salary cap cost, and potential reward there might not be a better bargain that can be had in a trade than Puljujarvi.
In fact, any team considering signing Nichushkin in free agency should probably give Ken Holland a call and make an offer first. They might just end up getting a younger and cheaper version.