Skip to main content

alt text

THE FOREWORD

BY WINNIPEG JETS FORWARD PATRIK LAINE

You can see it on the highlights and on Twitter. It doesn't matter how things are going for him on the ice, good or bad, he always has a positive attitude, is always laughing and has a smile on his face… He just needed a bit of time to grow into the game a little bit, but now that he has, he's really turning into the player a lot of us knew he could be.

It's really just the start for him.

JESSE

BY CAIT MACPHAIL

As the 2016 NHL Draft drew nearer in the spring of that year, the list of top prospects started falling into place as different scouting reports made their assessments and predictions as to when each player's name might come off the board and a consensus top three had come into focus.

American Auston Matthews had all but cemented his first-overall status. Finn Patrik Laine had jockeyed for the two-spot along with fellow countryman Jesse Puljujarvi all season long, but one thing seemed clear, three players had separated themselves from the herd.

The Edmonton Oilers finished the 2015-16 season in 29th, just ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and had the odds in their favor to hold their position in that draft's coveted top three.

With best odds for the top spot, Toronto won the lottery and would select first.

The way in which the NHL's draft lottery is set up, there is always the possibility of some surprises. And in 2016, it was the Winnipeg Jets that walked away as an unlikely beneficiary of those bouncing balls.

Entering the lottery, the Jets were slotted sixth with a rather small 7.5% chance of moving into the top three, but it proved enough anyway. Winnipeg jumped four spots to number two. It seemed, either way, they'd be walking away from the draft in June with a skilled 6'3 Finnish winger in either Puljujarvi or Laine. Two players who looked poised to become mainstays in any NHL team's top six.

So when the Oilers dropped two spots to four just behind the Columbus Blue Jackets, the fall seemed to carry more weight than it may have in another draft class. Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli knew selecting outside of the top three meant possibly losing out on a drafting a player they had kept close tabs on, one they were high on, but one that, by some fortuitous force, would fall into their lap anyway.

PEDIGREE

Puljujarvi checked off a lot of boxes required to reach the top of any NHL Draft class.

Puljujarvi is a big winger who combines size, skating and skill. A strong skater who can blast past the opposition in full speed. Great work ethic and positive attitude. More a playmaker than a scorer and could improve his shooting skills, although already equipped with an accurate release. - Puljujarvi's EliteProspects.com draft profile

Taking a first look at the Finnish teenager at the NHL Combine in June of 2016, one could be fooled. Seemingly already built beyond his years, most wouldn't assume he had just turned 18 years old. It was the use of that mature frame coupled with raw skill and pure skating abilities that turned heads around the League and pulled him into the consensus top three in the months leading up to the combine.

The Oilers had worked out a list of possible scenarios for their fourth-overall pick. Chiarelli, an often-active GM on the draft floor, had kicked the tires on several moves before the event opened. But it would be patience that proved the most valuable virtue that day.

"We were just looking at jockeying around, whether it was moving up or maybe moving down and seeing what we could maybe harvest," said Chiarelli about his team's fervent efforts on the draft floor.

"At one point, we started to look to move down. While that was happening, we got the sense that maybe Puljujarvi would drop. We kind of backed off."

alt text

Every team's draft board is different. And that day, the Columbus Blue Jackets proved it. 

After the Winnipeg Jets predictably took Patrik Laine second overall, Columbus stepped to the stage and, somewhat surprisingly, opted for centreman Pierre-Luc Dubois with their third-overall selection.

They got their guy.

Puljujarvi's name hung on the board like ripe fruit.

Chiarelli all but sprinted to the stage and the Oilers got theirs.

"There was no hesitation."

While the lottery balls bounced out of the Oilers favour months prior, the way the draft unfolded had made up for it. Each team was addressing a need and holding their position made both sides happy. Columbus added a much-needed centreman and the Oilers got a big, skilled winger to complement what they felt was an already strong contingent down the middle.

The Oilers weren't the only party who walked away pleasantly surprised that day. 

Puljujarvi sits in his stall in the Oilers locker room during his second season with the organization, fresh off the ice after the Oilers most recent practice. The nameplate above his head has been slid in and out a couple times over his first season and a half since being drafted, but now he sits comfortably beneath it with what seems like the confidence of player who knows that nameplate belongs there.

He recalls hearing his name being called at the draft in Buffalo, or probably more starkly, remembers it not being called. 

"I was a little surprised because we thought maybe I was going to go third," said the Finnish winger.

"I expected what was coming next and I'm happy Edmonton drafted me. I love it here," he nods.

The smile that Oilers fans have come to know well lights up the room.

ACCLIMATION

Many top NHL draft picks break into the NHL having dominated at all levels before. The skills that stood out to scouts had elevated these players higher than many others their age, and Puljujarvi had displayed utter dominance the year leading up to his draft selection.

His body of work at the 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland was something to behold. Puljujarvi led all players with 17 points and was named the best forward as tournament MVP en route to a gold medal. His point total was the second-highest by an under-18 player at the tournament-behind only Jaromir Jagr who tallied 18 points for Czechoslovakia at the 1990 tournament.

He looked, both skill-wise and physically, like a man amongst boys.

And he certainly didn't look out of place when actually playing with men for Karat in Liiga, Finland's top professional league where he tallied 13 goals and 18 points while averaging 15:04 of ice time in 50 games during the 2015-16 season.

All signs pointed to Puljujarvi being able to make the jump to the NHL sooner rather than later.

But adjustment on the ice is only one side of it.

Puljujarvi was going to have to endure a lot of firsts before he would even lace them up in one of the biggest of them all for his NHL debut.

Plucked from the familiar into a new country, with a new language, new teammates and new systems - a recipe for some discomfort, though you would never know it by seeing the young man in his new surroundings.

"It doesn't matter how things are going for him on the ice, good or bad, he always has a positive attitude, is always laughing and has a smile on his face," said fellow Finn and teammate on the Finnish National team Patrik Laine.

Oilers management, teammates and fans would come to learn this as well. 

From day one of his first Oilers training camp, Puljujarvi walked around bright-eyed, beaming and looking not at all out of place. His English was still a work in progress but he would attempt to answer media questions - often in short and brief affirmations but always with his signature grin in tow.

alt text

Puljujarvi's NHL career started with a bang, with the NHL's youngest player scoring his first goal in his League debut on opening night at Rogers Place. From there, he had an interesting, albeit expected, first few months as a rookie in the pros. After being in and out of the lineup for the first 28 games of the season, the Oilers opted to send Puljujarvi down for some seasoning with the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League.

"I think if you were to ask him he'd say it was frustrating," said Chiarelli. "I met with him a couple times throughout the year and he was very frustrated with his game."

It's never a part of the plan, but the Oilers knew it could only benefit the young Finn to get more ice time in Bakersfield rather than sporadically with the Oilers as a rookie. With the big club, Puljujarvi showed glimpses of his ability. In 28 games before his assignment, he managed one goal and seven assists, but limited minutes meant his acclimation was inevitably slowed.

Puljujarvi looks back with 20/20 vision and knows some time in the AHL was needed.

"Last year it was a good thing," he said. "I wasn't playing here as much and I needed to play. I went there and played many minutes and it was a good thing."

What Puljujarvi did with those increased minutes was very telling and shed a little light on just how close he was to a full-time NHL job. 

After being sent down in January, the winger would instantly make an offensive impact, recording a point in each of his first five games (2-3-5) and settled in as the offensive forward the organization knew he could be.

Bakersfield Head Coach Gerry Fleming knew Puljujarvi was entering his Condors lineup with a checklist of things to work on. Namely, his play away from the puck. The offence was prevalent. The defence needed work.

"We didn't want to overwhelm him with too many things. We just focused on a few areas and details," said Fleming.

And while Fleming immediately saw why the Finn came with such a cache, he kept a close eye on his development both on and off the ice.

"As an 18-year-old, being taken and placed in a new culture, that's hard. You're not as familiar with the language, there's new foods, new people and you're away from your friends and family. It's hard to imagine how it would feel," said Fleming.

But that's when teammates can be the necessary crutch.

"The guys embraced him. The biggest thing was his teammates doing everything possible to make him feel comfortable and helping with that acclimation to North America."

The hulking winger finished that season with 12 goals, 16 assists and 28 points in 39 games with the Condors. 

A confidence booster to say the least.

FRESH OPPORTUNITY

Each new season brings new opportunities and Puljujarvi was once again presented with a chance to snag full-time work in the NHL as the Oilers embarked on their 2017-18 training camp. 

After getting into his first pre-season game versus Calgary where he thought he could be stronger, you couldn't have scripted his second one much better. Two goals and an assist from Puljujarvi propelled the Oilers to a 6-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets. 

He was showing that burgeoning new confidence that Oilers management saw building with the Condors the previous season. 

The post-game media contingent converged on that evening's first star for some post-game comments. Puljujarvi's teammate at the time and fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen took off his skates and came to sophomore's side, intending to help translate if needed.

Puljujarvi gestured to him. Jokinen smiled and went back to his stall.

The young forward faced the media with his toothy grin, ready to take on their questions. It was very telling of not only just how far his English had come, but how comfortable he had started to feel. The true personality that everyone knew was there being revealed more and more in his new environment. It seemed confidence was the pick with which Jesse needed to chip away to uncover it. 

Puljujarvi would once again put in some work in the AHL to open the 2017-18 season, but that stay would be short-lived and Condors coach Fleming could sense it when he arrived.

"There was a definite improvement in all the areas we focused on last year. He just came back this year and we refocused on those simple things and he's getting rewarded now," 
said Fleming.

"He's definitely evolving into the player the organization expected him to be."

Fellow Finn, former teammate and good friend Patrik Laine of Winnipeg echoes the sentiment as he watches his countryman evolve on and off the ice from afar.

alt text

"I've been keeping a close eye on him since he came back up to the NHL and it's been awesome to see him having some success now," said Laine. 

"He had a tough year last year and that was hard for him; he's a young guy. He just needed a bit of time to grow into the game a little bit, but now that he has, he's really turning into the player a lot of us knew he could be."

Puljujarvi was on the road to Tuscon, AZ, with the Condors when he got the call this past November. He was to be re-routed to the Big Apple to join the Oilers for their game against the Rangers.

"I was a little bit surprised but very, very excited," said Puljujarvi.

The winger showed up like he wouldn't expect to receive a similar call again because he performed like a player who belonged. Not only did he score on his first shift, but it was arguably one of his best games in an Oilers uniform. He was assertive, skated with pace and even showed off a cannon of a one-timer from way beyond the hash marks that picked the top corner. 

Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan saw a difference immediately.

"I thought he was quite good," said McLellan.

"He had a lot of pep in his stride, he looked quicker to me, shooting the puck. I thought some of the things we had asked him to do down in (Bakersfield) showed up in the game today. On an individual side of it, we're happy for him. He had a good game and a good night. He should leave the rink confident and continue to play that way." 

Puljujarvi sits and reflects on his own season so far. He still speaks in short sentences when talking about what has worked for him so far, but you get the feeling it's not because he's grasping for the right words in English, but rather, that the reason for some success in his NHL return is simple to him. He articulates it easily and without hesitation.

"I know how the game works here now," he said. "I know how I have to play. That's the reason."

A young man the fans have affectionally dubbed "Pool Party" has started to come out of his shell and is, thus far, showing he can thrive in the deep end. 

And if one heeds the words of those closest to him, it sounds like the party is just getting started.

VIEW MORE IN DEPTHS

Each and every Sunday during the season we dig deeper into Oilers storylines with our long-form features.

VIEW MORE IN DEPTHS | RETURN TO EDMONTONOILERS.COM