Crunch time arrives for Oilers’ Puljujarvi to establish himself in the NHL

EDMONTON — “It is.”

That two-word answer describes everything that is Jesse Puljujarvi this season, as the big Finn’s answer to the question, “Is it time to establish yourself in the NHL?”

“It is.”

Crunch time has arrived for the happy-go-lucky right winger lovingly known as “The Bison King” by his fans here in Edmonton. He is 24 years old now, six years removed from that 2016 draft that saw him go fourth overall, ahead of names like Matthew Tkachuk, Alex DeBrincat, Mikhail Sergachev, Jakob Chychrun and Adam Fox.

Today he is a veteran with a $3 million cap hit on a one-year deal, a player who has spent much of the past three seasons on Edmonton’s trading block with Ken Holland unable to consummate a deal that resembles fair value for a player with Puljujarvi’s skill sets.

This camp, however, is different for Puljujarvi.

He’s not a kid anymore or even a prospect. He is, like every other Oiler, a guy on a cash-strapped payroll who needs to justify the percentage of the payroll he’s getting.

“It changes it a lot,” GM Ken Holland said of Puljujarvi’s new price tag when we sat down for a Q and A in Penticton, BC, last week. “The last two years, he was at $1.175 million. Three million? That’s not a lot of money for a Top 6 player. But if he’s on our third line…”

So who, exactly, is Jesse Puljujarvi, the enigmatic Finn with the big smile and every tool in the tool box — except perhaps the most important one, the hockey sense that brings it all together?

Fans (and the Oilers) hope he is Valeri Nichushkin, the big Russian right winger who flailed around in Dallas, went home to Russia, and then finally blossomed at age 26 with a 25-goal season in Colorado.

However, it is still possible that Puljujarvi is Alex Galchenyuk, who spent six seasons with the team that drafted him third overall (Montreal) and was sent packing. Today, the 28-year-old is on a PTO with Colorado, his seventh NHL organization (twice with Arizona) if he sticks with the Avs.

Or, is he Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick who blossomed in Florida at age 25, scoring 28 goals in his first full season with his second organization?

The trick to finding lasting success, says Puljujarvi, is to find lasting confidence.

“I tried to work hard last summer, get back good confidence, and start there,” he said at the pre-season podium Thursday morning. “I think confidence is a big thing. Here in the NHL, you need the confidence every day, every game, every play. So yeah, try to be a tough guy and play with good confidence. That’s big stuff.”

Puljujarvi had a great start last season with 10 goals and 23 points by Christmas and earning his place on Connor McDavid’s wing. In his final 37 games, however, he had four goals and 13 points.

To his credit, Puljujarvi would not entertain that injury or COVID-19 affected his downfall in production. But he finished the season as a 10-minutes-per-night playoff performer, devoid of confidence.

“I think that’s fair,” head coach Jay Woodcroft said of the assertion that Puljujarvi’s confidence had disappeared. “Confidence is not something you necessarily start out with. It’s earned through a lot of hard work and effort.

“Part of that is me putting him in a position to succeed. Part of that is the work that he put in and over the summertime — what I saw today, what I saw on the captain skates — I saw a highly motivated player who put in a lot of work over time.”

Woodcroft gave Puljujarvi a plum assignment on Day 1 of camp: a spot on a line with Leon Draisaitl and Zach Hyman. Puljujarvi had a good day, in the coach’s eyes.

“He should feel confident heading into Day 2,” Woodcroft said. “But like with all of our players here, we need them to get better every day.”

And stay better.

If Puljujarvi can do that, he could still become the best trade that Ken Holland never made.

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