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Finnish talent Puljujarvi draws Selanne comparisons

by Mike G. Morreale / NHL.com

Every Thursday, NHL.com will look ahead to the 2016 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Right wing Jesse Puljujarvi of Karpat in Finland, a top prospect for the 2016 NHL Draft, possesses all the tools scouts crave.

He has the size (6-foot-3, 203 pounds), strength and speed, is creative on the power play and can dominate 1-on-1. He could go as high as a top-five pick and, judging by his play so far this season in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, it's easy to see why. In 16 games the 17-year-old has four goals, four assists and 49 shots on goal while averaging 14:38 of ice time.

"He's a powerful skater with good speed and balance," said Goran Stubb, NHL Director of European Scouting. "He has outstanding hockey sense and reads the play well. He's a good playmaker with strong puck-handling skills. He can take advantage of 1-on-1 situations with his long reach."

His appetite to score goals is pretty obvious.

"Scoring is the best thing in hockey," Puljujarvi said via an interpreter. "Of course there are also a lot other things I try to do on the ice. But I always try to score."

In an effort to keep him grounded, his coaches have tempered their expectations for Puljujarvi, who has been compared to former NHL star Teemu Selanne when he was a prospect for the 1988 draft. They would prefer Puljujarvi concentrate on his game and not get caught up in all the hype.

When asked about the comparisons to Selanne, Puljujarvi shrugged.

"That's a hard question to answer," he said. "Teemu always wanted to score, wanted to go to the net and always tried to create scoring chances. I like to do all of that, and be dangerous all the time. So I guess in that way we're the same.

"I want to continue to play a versatile game, stay on the puck and go hard to the net."

There was a point late in a game against Sweden during the United States National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in August when Finland coach Jukka Jalonen opted to keep Puljujarvi on the bench during the final two minutes of what became a 2-0 Finland loss.

It was a surprising decision considering Puljujarvi is a likely candidate to play for Finland at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will be played in Helsinki, from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, 2016. At the 2015 WJC he had no points in five games as Finland's youngest player. He was the sixth 16-year-old to play for Finland at the WJC, joining retired NHL players Reijo Ruotsalainen and Janne Niinimaa, and Mikael Granlund of the Minnesota Wild, Olli Maatta of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers.

When asked about the benching, Puljujarvi took it in stride and provided a response one would expect from a top draft-eligible prospect.

"Of course I want to do everything I can to play in the game," he said. "But coaches make decisions and you have to stick with that. But that's something I want to work on. I just need to learn from that by watching and listening to what the coaches say. I want to play better so I'm on the ice in the last two minutes; that's the goal.

"It's the guys who have the fire to score who are on the ice in the big moments."

That's precisely the type of player Puljujarvi yearns to be.

"He's playing a much bigger role on Karpat this year," Stubb said. "He has been on the first line in some games and has proven to be very solid and consistent from game to game. He's definitely matured and improved over last season."

In 2014-15 Puljujarvi had 12 goals and 18 points in 11 games with Karpat's under-20 team, and four goals and 11 points in 21 games with Karpat in Liiga. He was seventh in scoring among under-19 players in Liiga despite being 16 years old.

"I think he has potential to become a good NHL player; he's a big guy and his attitude is very good," Jalonen said of Puljujarvi. "He skates very well, is in good physical condition and works hard. He's a young guy and his overall play needs to improve, especially on the defensive side of the puck. He needs to learn how to play when the opponent has the puck. But that's normal things for a young guy. I believe he has a very bright future."

Hakan Andersson, the Detroit Red Wings director of European Scouting, said Puljujarvi could challenge Auston Matthews as the No. 1 choice in the 2016 draft.

"For sure he's going top-five because he's a pretty complete package," Andersson said of Puljujarvi. "He's a big guy who can make plays and works hard. He has that speed and tremendous hands. I think he looks similar to Auston Matthews, but might be a little slimmer body-wise. But he's certainly a similar kind of player."

The Arizona-born Matthews is playing for Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league, and is tied for the league lead with nine goals in 11 games.

"I think we are pretty similar, but of course we have our own strengths," Puljujarvi said of Matthews. "Auston is good with the puck and he has a good shot. We use our strength a little differently but we are both big and strong on the puck."

Jalonen felt Matthews might hold an advantage over Puljujarvi at this stage in their development.

"Puljujarvi is a good skater but he has to improve his superstar play a little bit, like what he'll need in the NHL," Jalonen said. "I think Matthews at the moment is a little closer to that level but I think Puljujarvi is getting there."

Forward Patrik Laine, who plays for Tappara in Liiga and also is considered a top-10 pick in the 2016 draft, has played left wing on a line with Puljujarvi during international events and the two have had great chemistry.

"We work well together when we're on the same line," Laine said. "I was quite skeptical because we are the same kind of players and I didn't know how it was going to work. But I think we play very good together and I hope that we can play together again in the World Junior Championship."

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