The New Jersey Devils have a big offseason ahead of them. Goaltending sunk their 2021-22 season, which makes it priority No. 1, but general manager Tom Fitzgerald has other needs to take care of as well. At his end-of-season press conference in early May, he talked about wanting to add something different up front. Most of the Devils’ forwards excel off the rush, so it’s not hard to figure out what Fitzgerald means. He wants someone who forechecks and creates havoc in and around the net.
There are a few free agents who’d fit what Fitzgerald is looking for, but there may also be some available through a trade. One name that could be of interest is Edmonton Oilers winger Jesse Puljujärvi, who happens to be a restricted free agent this summer. Yesterday on TSN radio, Ryan Rishaug said that while he’s not sure, it is possible that Puljujärvi may have played his last game as an Oiler (about 6:30 in).
Puljujärvi finished the 2021-22 season with 14 goals and 36 points in 65 games — an 18-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games. He may not be the big-time scorer the Devils need, but he’d still be an ideal fit for what Fitzgerald is seeking up front while still giving the Devils the cap flexibility to pursue another high-end scorer.
Puljujärvi’s Play Since Returning From Finland
Puljujärvi is a former top-five pick of the Oilers (4th overall in 2016), but his NHL career did not get off to a great start. From 2016 to 2019, he totaled just 37 points in his first 139 games — an average of 22 points per 82 games. With his entry-level contract expiring after the 2018-19 season, he decided to return to his native Finland and play for Kärpät in the Liiga, Finland’s top pro league.
In his first season back in the Liiga, Puljujärvi had 24 goals and 53 points in 59 games, making him one of the league’s top scorers. Because of the pandemic, he’d begin the 2020-21 season with Kärpät, where he’d total five goals and 12 points in 16 games before returning to the Oilers in January ahead of the start of the COVID-shortened NHL season.
Puljujärvi’s time in Finland seems to have paid off for his development. In 2020-21 with the Oilers, he finished with 15 goals and 25 points in 55 games — a 22-goal, 37-point pace over 82 games. The counting totals might not seem impressive, but his underlying metrics were quite good. He finished the year with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.92 percent and an expected goals percentage (xG%) of 56.14 percent.
It’s clear Puljujärvi he improved a season ago, and he carried over that momentum into the 2021-22 season. While the counting totals still lagged, especially for someone who played plenty with Connor McDavid, Puljujärvi finished with a 58.58 CF% and 59.78 xG%, both of which ranked first on the Oilers. Though he should be scoring more than he is, he’s arguably the Oilers’ best play driver after McDavid and Leon Draisaitl:
When thinking of a play driver, you probably think of someone with elite skill like McDavid or, in the Devils’ case, Jack Hughes, but that’s not Puljujärvi. What makes him such a great play driver is his ability to get in on the forecheck and retrieve the puck to create scoring chances and open space for his teammates. He’s also not afraid to get into high-danger areas. In fact, it’s where he makes a living, as he ranks third in high-danger chances on the Oilers since the start of 2020-21, with only McDavid and Kailer Yamamoto totaling more.
So why doesn’t Puljujärvi score more often than he does? The area that he needs to improve significantly is his shot. He finished the 2021-22 season shooting 8.8 percent at all strengths and is just a 9.1 percent shooter for his career. For someone who creates plenty of high-danger chances, Puljujärvi has to convert on them more often than he is.
If the Devils were to acquire him, he’d likely play alongside Hughes. And if not Hughes, it’d be Nico Hischier. If either is your primary center, you have to convert on the chances they create and at least be a consistent 25-goal scorer. Fortunately, he recently turned 24 years old, and improving a player’s shot is still correctable for someone his age. If the Devils think they can improve his shot, he’s a fit on their roster because of what he’d add offensively on the forecheck.
Puljujärvi’s Trade Value
It’s hard to find an accurate trade comparable for someone like Puljujärvi, given his situation and spending some time in Finland. The New York Rangers got a 2022 second-round pick and Sammy Blais in exchange for Pavel Buchnevich last summer. As Prashanth Iyer pointed out on Twitter, the Sam Bennett trade, in which the Calgary Flames acquired a second-round pick and prospect, Emil Heineman, could also be a comparable.
Though Puljujärvi is a former top-five pick, he doesn’t have first-round value anymore. And while he may have strong underlying metrics, counting totals still determine trade value. If the Devils give up a draft pick for him, it’d likely be their second-rounder in the 2022 draft, which sits at 37th overall.
After that, things get a bit interesting since the Oilers have only $7.13 million in cap space to work with this offseason. Per Rishaug, it seems they’ve prioritized re-signing Yamamoto, their other notable RFA. They also probably want to re-sign Evander Kane, who performed well after signing with the Oilers midway through the season despite the off-ice concerns. Add in any changes general manager Ken Holland wants to make in net and on defense, and money gets tighter than it already is.
If the Oilers trade Puljujärvi, they won’t be able to take on much salary because of their cap situation. It’d likely be a futures deal, which the Devils should be able to pull off since they have a relatively deep prospect pool. Could the Devils’ 2022 second-round pick and a prospect like Kevin Bahl get the job done? That’s close to the Bennett return. Other prospects who could be part of a package instead of Bahl are Nolan Foote, Fabian Zetterlund, and Shakir Mukhamadullin.
Though the Oilers can’t take on significant money, one scenario that could occur is the Devils giving up their 2022 second-round pick and Andreas Johnsson. If they retain 50 percent on the final year of Johnsson’s contract, that’d bring his cap hit down to $1.7 million, something the Oilers might be able to fit in for 2022-23. Still, that’s probably unlikely given what else Holland might want to do to improve an Oilers team that just made the Western Conference Final. So if they trade Puljujärvi, it’d probably be smart to bet on it being a futures-based deal.
What Does a Puljujärvi Extension Look Like?
Lastly, the Devils would have to sign Puljujärvi to a new deal since he’s an RFA. Per Evolving-Hockey, he projects to land a six-year deal worth an average annual value (AAV) of $4.995 million if signing with a different team. Since he has struggled to score at a high level, I don’t think the Devils would be willing to go to six years, but there are other paths that make sense.
Signing Puljujärvi to a four-year contract comes with a projected AAV of $4.4 million, which would make him UFA eligible in 2026 and eats one year of UFA eligibility. It’s also possible the Devils opt for a two-year bridge deal, which comes with a projected AAV of $3.446 mil. That’d take him to the 2024 offseason when he’d be an RFA again. If he breaks out during that time, the Devils could go for a long-term deal then. But given some of his metrics, they might be wise to go for four years and bet that improving his shot will help him pop. Because if that happens during a two-year bridge deal, his next contract could be pretty expensive in 2024.
All in all, there’s a fit for Puljujärvi on the Devils. He’s an excellent forechecker and is not afraid to get to high-danger scoring areas. Even with a weak shot, he’s averaged 20 goals per 82 games over the last two seasons. If the Devils can help him improve his shooting ability, there’s real upside to his game, given his playing style. And he would very much give Fitzgerald that different look he seeks for the Devils’ forwards this offseason while still giving him the cap flexibility to add another marquee scorer.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017