Puljujarvi had a decent rookie season and Eberle had a down year, so maybe
Just how much can the Edmonton Oilers count on Jesse Puljujarvi next season?
This question takes on more importance if the Oilers, as expected now, move out Jordan Eberle in a trade in the next few weeks. It takes on even more importance if the Oilers decide to use Leon Draisaitl most often in his natural centre position.
When Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli last talked about Puljujarvi at his year-end press conference, he was fairly lavish in his praise.
The Oilers GM said that when he talked to Puljujarvi, who was the youngest player in the AHL at 18 this year, the kid was frustrated about not scoring enough, though he did have 28 points in 39 games: “I met with him a couple times this year and he was very frustrated with his game. It’s a tough league the American League… He actually had a pretty good year… I think he had 12 goals, he could have had 20 goals. He missed a lot of goals. He was good for a breakaway a period.”
When he talked to Puljujarvi about his goal-scoring frustrating, Chiarelli said he told him: “You just worry about your wall work. You worry about stuff on the defensive side of red line. Don’t worry about the offence. I have no issues with the offence.”
Said Chiarelli: “I’m happy with his development…. He’s going to be an impact player. Every time he touches the puck in the American League, it pretty much turns into a scoring chance.”
- It’s hard to know how it’s going to go for a young attacker. Some, like Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky, don’t sparkle early on but quickly enough become top line forwards. Others like Nail Yakupov and Magnus Paajarvi glitter early on but never make the jump to being solid Top 6 two-way wingers. If anyone says they’re certain which camp Puljujarvi is going to be in here, they’re deluded. We simply can’t be sure. All we can do is make a good guess, a good a bet, and that’s all Peter Chiarelli can do as well. So how good a bet is Puljujarvi?
- Chiarelli exaggerated somewhat when he talked about how successful Puljujarvi was at creating scoring chances and breakaways at the AHL level, at least from the handful of games I saw, and also based on his good but not great point scoring totals. This isn’t to say that Puljujarvi didn’t have some real success rushing and moving the puck in Bakersfield. He did. His point total for such a young player in the AHL was also plenty good.
- Puljujarvi is big, fast and skilled, and while his hockey sense isn’t off the charts, he’s learned to play a more forceful, positional game. He’s swooping around the ice less. After a year in North America, he’s playing a more direct, high energy game. He gets in and forechecks well with his excellent reach and quick stick.
- I watched Puljujarvi closely in a handful of his games at the World Championships. He wasn’t the top winger on the Finnish team that lost to Russia in the Bronze Medal game, but he earned a regular spot on the wing on one of Finland’s four lines. He didn’t play with a great deal of offensive flair, and seemed tentative at times, but he held his own as a two-way player and even showed a few flashes of aggression. He roughed it up fiercely with one opposing player after the whistle, which was good to see.
- I was also OK with Puljujarvi’s play at the NHL level this past season, especially when he was on a third line with Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisaitl to start the year. That line forechecked and cycled the puck well, and Puljujarvi was part of the mix, not just riding the bus.
- Puljujarvi didn’t put up a lot of points in the NHL, just 8 in 28 games, but he made more major contributions to Grade A even strength scoring chances, 1.1 per game, than other young Oilers forwards. He tied Milan Lucic at 1.1 per game and was ahead of young vets like Tyler Pitlick, 1.0 per game, Drake Caggiula, 0.9 per game, Anton Slepyshev, 0.5 per game, and Iiro Pakarinen, 0.4 per game. Patrick Maroon led the way on the wing for the Oilers in this category, 1.4 per game. Jordan Eberle was also at 1.4 per game. Could Puljujarvi bump up his 1.1 per game to 1.3 or 1.4 per game next season? I can’t see why not, especially if he were on a line with Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
- Eberle made some pass, shot or screen to contribute to 41 even strength goals, one every second game. Maroon led in this category, with 53 such contributions to even strength goals. Puljujarvi chipped in on 10 even strength goals. With three or four times the ice time, could he chip in on 40 or 50, essentially provide the offence that Eberle provided? Will he do enough to keep in coach Todd McLellan’s good books? Puljujarvi will have to improve to do so, but it won’t be a major stretch because Eberle was only a good even strength attacker this year, not a great one.
- I can see Puljujarvi replacing Eberle at even strength on the attack, though it’s important to remember that Eberle had a bit of a down year. In 2015-16, he made 1.5 major contributions to Grade A even strength scoring chances per game, which was second only to Taylor Hall at 1.7 per game. Hall was a strong first-line attacking winger, and that’s more like the kind of total we’ll see from a winger like Eberle or Puljujarvi if they’re truly excelling at even strength on the attack. For example, this year Connor McDavid made a major contribution to 2.2 Grade A scoring chances per game at even strength, while Draisaitl was at 1.6 per game.
- As for defence, Eberle made some strides this year as the year went on, but he still made a higher rate of major mistakes on Grade A chances against than any other Oilers winger. Puljujarvi, in limited minutes, was second worst in this category. A winger like Anton Slepyshev proved to be considerably safer in the d-zone, so perhaps that is why McLellan favoured Slepyshev in a third and fourth line role over Puljujarvi. But when it comes to replacing Eberle as a defensive player, that shouldn’t be an issue for the Oilers. Eberle was at best an average defender, and lots of other players are capable of being that.
- In terms of the depth chart, and excluding Eberle, I’d project the wingers on their two-way play as Maroon, Lucic, Caggiula (who had a strong playoffs), Puljujarvi, Kassian, Slepyshev, Pitlick, Khaira, Pouliot, Pakarinen. That group of 10 lacks a world-beating attacker. It’s likely one Top 6 winger from being enough for the Oilers to make a run for the Stanley Cup. But Puljujarvi will be in the mix and I expect he’ll both stick in the Top 9 and play well. Does that replace Eberle? It comes close and it’s not a bad bet, especially considering how much the Oilers will gain in cap space by moving out Eberle.
- In the end, I’m bullish on Puljujarvi heading into his second season and firmly on the fence in regards to trading Eberle, with the pros and cons lining up closely. It’s the safer bet to keep Eberle, but I’m also keen to see what Puljujarvi can do, and opening up a roster spot for him is appealing.
Staples in the city
At the Cult of Hockey