Jesse Puljujarvi

PRAGUE, Czechia -- A glimpse at Jesse Puljujarvi's scars told Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Karlsson all he needed to know about his teammate's battle to return from bilateral hip surgery last offseason.

"They don't look pleasant," Karlsson said. "The journey that he's had, it couldn't have been easy. Once he came to us and we got to know him, you can see his dedication to the game and his determination to be the best he can be. He's worked as hard as anyone ever could have.

"We're happy he's been able to come back and play at the level that he is after such a gruesome injury and surgery. I've had plenty myself and I know it's not easy. All the credit to him for putting in the work and the dedication he has to play at the level he needs to to play in the NHL.

"It's just fantastic."

Puljujarvi opted for the invasive surgery at the same time he was while facing unrestricted free agency last summer, and the 26-year-old forward pushed through a lengthy rehabilitation before eventually weaving his way back onto NHL ice with the Penguins in February.

"For sure it was tough, but my focus was always that I was going to work hard," Puljujarvi said from the 2024 IIHF World Championship, where he is representing Finland. "The doctors said there was going to be some hope I could play. I believed that. I just worked hard, stayed positive, and trusted the process.

"Of course I had some little ups and downs, but not big ones, and I was pretty sure I was going to be able to be an NHL level player."

The path back hasn't been linear for Puljujarvi, who became a free agent after he failed to earn a qualifying offer from the Carolina Hurricanes last spring.

On Dec. 10, 2023, just days after being cleared by doctors for full-contact training -- a six-month recovery following his second hip surgery after having an arthroscopic procedure in 2019 -- Puljujarvi signed a free agent tryout with the Penguins.

That morphed into a 13-game professional tryout with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, Pittsburgh's minor-league affiliate, on Jan. 4.

Puljujarvi, the No. 4 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Edmonton Oilers, turned the audition into a two-year, $1.6 million contract ($800,000 average annual value) with the Penguins exactly one month later.

The process punctuated plenty of sweat equity for Puljujarvi, who had 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 75 regular-season games for Edmonton and Carolina last season, including two assists in 17 games for the Hurricanes after he was acquired in a trade with the Oilers on Feb. 28.

"I'm still pretty young," he said. "I was thinking I still have 10 more years (of playing). My full life has been around hockey. I didn't have any excuses or any thoughts that it was going to be 'that's it.'

"I was 100 percent in to be a good player again."

In all, it ended up being an eight-month trial of perseverance for Puljujarvi to land back on NHL ice.

"Being a high draft pick and the expectations coming with that," Karlsson said, "then things not going the way you want them to maybe, and getting those injuries and still battling and still being able to play at that level is something not a lot of guys would be able to do.

"Being around him and getting to know him and be around him, you can really see the work he puts in and the dedication that he has to the game of hockey, himself, his teammates, to be at his best and to come back and play at the level he is is inspiring."

Puljujarvi, who had four points (three goals, one assist) in 22 games with the Penguins, believes there's another level to be unlocked in 2024-25.

"Next season, it's going to be the biggest season for my career," said Puljujarvi, who has 118 points (54 goals, 64 assists) in 356 games through seven NHL seasons.

"Now the thing is how I'm going to be a good player there."