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Puljujarvi enjoying second chance with Oilers

Forward's game, mentality in better place following stint with Karpat in Finland

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Jesse Puljujarvi's joy for hockey is so honest and evident, the Edmonton Oilers forward's smile seems to stretch from ear to ear whenever he's on the ice.

It also stretches back to Karpat, his most recent team, in Oulu, Finland, where teammates can't help but notice a new lease on hockey life for the 22-year-old forward.

"I just think he's happy where he is right now in life and where he wants to be in his career," said Shaun Heshka, a defenseman with Karpat. "You can see it on the ice. We see those highlights, and he's smiling a lot. He's one of the few guys that has a pure joy for the game. And it's great to see."

Puljujarvi's return to the Oilers and NHL this season has flipped the narrative from his first go-round in Edmonton.

After being selected with the No. 4 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Puljujarvi endured three frustrating seasons with the Oilers, scoring 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 139 games and being assigned to the American Hockey League during each of those seasons. He struggled to assimilate to the North American game and was not easily able to communicate with teammates because of his inability to speak English.

As a result, when his entry-level contract expired and he became a restricted free agent in 2019, he asked the Oilers to trade him. When they didn't, he returned to Finland for 17 months to reset himself and his game.

Following that time away, Puljujarvi decided to rejoin the Oilers, signing a two-year contract on Oct. 7, 2020, and has scored 13 points (eight goals, five assists) in 33 games this season.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. It's evident Puljujarvi is in a better place.

"I just think it's nice to be back here playing hard games," he said. "Life is good here. I have a nice house and have a new puppy (Jaffa, a golden retriever) and I'm just enjoying every day."

This season, Puljujarvi has played occasionally on a line with Connor McDavid, who leads the NHL with 60 points (21 goals, 39 assists) in 34 games.

"[Puljujarvi] skates so well," McDavid said. "He gets in on the forecheck and creates loose pucks. That's the biggest difference I've noticed in his game. His confidence, obviously ... he's scored a couple of goals that you probably wouldn't have seen him score two years ago. He's playing well."

The difference in Puljujarvi's game is a testament to the work he's put in.

With Karpat in 2019-20, Puljujarvi scored 53 points (24 goals, 29 assists) in 56 games, which was tied for fourth in Liiga, prompting discussions about a potential return to intensify.

Video: CGY@EDM: Puljujarvi puts rebound into back of the net

Ken Holland, who was hired as general manager of Edmonton on May 7, 2019, was interested in bringing Puljujarvi back, despite the trade request he had made to the previous administration.

"[Holland] said he wanted me to be part of the team, that he exactly knew what kind of player I am, and then I just started feeling this may be a good time to come back and play in the best league in the world," Puljujarvi said.

Second chances became a theme, one he gave to the Oilers and to himself.

Jussi Jokinen, a forward for Karpat, knows a bit about the path Puljujarvi is traveling. He came over to the NHL from Finland as a 22-year-old in 2005-06 and scored 563 points (191 goals, 372 assists) in 951 NHL games with nine teams, including a short stint with Puljujarvi and the Oilers in 2017-18, before returning to Karpat at 35.

"I think he's mentally in a way better spot, way more ready to go in there," Jokinen said. "His English is way better and he's got all the tools to make a 15-year career there. He's smiling. He's playing well and with confidence."

By clearing the language barrier, which he did by utilizing English-speaking teammates at Karpat to maximum effect, Puljujarvi is now more capable of easily communicating with coaches and teammates, something that was missing the first time around.

"The coaches sat him here between me and Cody Kunyk, the other Canadian on our team, and we overloaded him with as much English as he could understand," said Heshka, who is from Melville, Saskatchewan. "And he had a Swedish roommate [Ludwig Bystrom] on the road who spoke only English with him."

Jokinen said aside from the language barrier, he believes Puljujarvi's self-esteem had been damaged by previous struggles in Edmonton.

Each of the players selected ahead of Puljujarvi in the 2016 draft found immediate success in the NHL. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored 40 goals as a rookie and won the Calder Memorial Trophy, Patrik Laine scored 36 goals in his first season with the Winnipeg Jets, and Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 109 points (47 goals, 62 assists) in his first two NHL seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"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. "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."

Jokinen was also able to help prepare Puljujarvi for what to expect with Edmonton coach Dave Tippett, who was Jokinen's coach during his first three NHL seasons with the Dallas Stars.

"If you do the little things well and you deserve the ice time, he'll give you the ice time, but you had better earn his trust," Jokinen said. "I think that's what Jesse has done and it's looking good."

Video: EDM@VAN: Puljujarvi tucks one home on the power play

Holland agrees, saying he sees a difference in Puljujarvi's game.

"He gets in on the forecheck, he pressures the other team's defensemen, he's a good skater and at 6-foot-4 gains ground on opponents fast and puts pressure on the other team's D," Holland said. "He's done a good job at getting the puck in the hands of his linemates and going to the blue paint."

Tippett has also been pleased, especially that Puljujarvi took the message of a clean slate to heart.

"That was one of the discussions both Ken and I had with him, that it's a clean slate on everything," Tippett said. "We don't want to know what happened in the past, we want you to come in and be a good player for us and get up and going and see where you can get to. He's come in and played well from the first day of camp and hasn't looked back."

Puljujarvi and the Oilers next play against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday after their game Monday was postponed because two Canadiens players entered NHL COVID-19 protocol.

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