For months, Edmonton had grown familiar with the giddy essence of Jesse Puljujarvi. After fortuitously falling to the Oilers at fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft then cracking the lineup out of training camp, a lot of attention was put on the smiling giant due to his thrilling potential.
The 18-year-old has it all: size, strength, speed, stickhandling and of course, a cannon. The thought of Puljujarvi emerging as the scintillating power forward as projected have the Oilers beaming.
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Video: MINORS MINUTE | Puljujarvi's Goal
But with his own tongue protruding from his mouth, Puljujarvi didn't speak a lick of English when he first arrived in Edmonton and, after playing European hockey all his life, wasn't familiar with the NHL's style of play. English lessons have sought to change that. Playing in the American Hockey League with the Bakersfield Condors has him further adapting to the North American game, too.
A demotion to the AHL was not going to knock the fun-loving nature of the young Finn, whose amusement stays stamped to his face.
"He's come down here with a good attitude," said Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming, who's been utilizing Puljujarvi as a certified top six player and aims at getting him 18 to 22 minutes of ice time a night. "He's getting a lot of scoring chances but we're trying to really get him to focus on his play away from the puck and we're seeing improvements in that. It's something that we've been focusing on more: stops and starts in his game and he's really conscious of it."
Puljujarvi has three goals and nine points in 12 games with the club. As expected, the offence is prevalent, while the defence is developing.
"He's always going to create offence because he's highly skilled, he skates well, he's a big body, protects the puck well, has a tremendous shot; it's just his play away from the puck (that needs work)," said Fleming.
With the Oilers, Puljujarvi flashed glimpses of his ability. In 28 games, he posted one goal and seven assists for eight points but learning on the fly and under limited minutes was not ideal for the beanstalk.
"It's a hard league to come into, the NHL," said Oilers Senior Director of Player Development Rick Carriere. "It's very unforgiving, you can't make mistakes that don't often show up on scoring chances against. Sometimes it's good just to kind of take a bit of a breather and go to the American League."
Puljujarvi is in good company down in Bakersfield. Oilers forward and fellow Finnish skater Iiro Pakarinen is with the Condors on a conditioning stint and has taken the responsibility of assisting Puljujarvi. Alongside Jere Sallinen - a centre who is also from Finland - the trio is comforting, allowing them to banter in the same language and give a family-feel to the Oilers prospect.
"It's just something that happens (naturally)," said Pakarinen. "I think that's my responsibility, too. He's kind of like a brother to me, coming from the same country, being a Finnish guy and a younger guy, too. I got some help when I was that age from the older players, so now I'm a little bit older than him so now that's my mission to help him."
After noticing their relationship off the ice, Fleming decided to form an all-Finnish line in Puljujarvi, Sallinen and Pakarinen. The troupe enjoys skating together and have an arsenal of weapons at their disposal to help them 'Finnish.'
"They're together a lot off the ice, so we thought that would translate into some good chemistry on the ice," said Fleming. "They complement each other well."
Speaking their native tongue while on the playing surface also gives them an added advantage.
"You can talk pretty loud," said Pakarinen. "We say what we're going to do from the faceoffs and stuff like that and nobody understands us. That's a pretty good weapon for us."
With Pakarinen's leg injury keeping him in the press box for the whole season, he's been able to watch Puljujarvi's progression and is now augmenting it. Pakarinen's already seen differences in the young prospect's performance.
"I noticed when he came over here from Finland that he was maybe playing still too much of the European style," he said. "In the NHL, everything is about the system. It's a little bit different in Finland. You have the system there but it's not as much as here. We go through so many things here. I think that's the difference, it might be the biggest difference."
Conforming to a new style of hockey and a new world isn't easy, especially for a budding teenager. Patience is key for Puljujarvi, even though he is close to becoming an everyday NHL player.
"There's always adjustments for someone coming over from Europe to North America for the first time, whether it's changes in culture, changes in language, changes in food," said Fleming. "I think Jesse, he's come down here No. 1: with a good work ethic. No. 2: he wants to get better every day. He's comfortable with the guys, comfortable where he's staying. I'd say he's getting more and more used to the way things are on this side of the Atlantic."
It may not be long until Edmonton is rekindled with the gleaming teeth of the Finn. Edmonton, its fans and the Oilers management are all happy to see the incline in his game but there may not be anyone more excited for the future than the player himself.
"You can see with his size, his speed and skill that he's very close to being an NHL player," said Fleming.
"An impact player, at that."