There are a ton of mixed feelings about the Edmonton Oilers’ 2016 Draft. They finished second-last in the NHL that season but dropped to fourth in the Draft. It was the one time they didn’t have luck at their backs when it came to the draft lottery.
The Oilers ended up drafting Jesse Puljujarvi fourth overall, then proceeded to make strong second and third-round selections drafting Tyler Benson and Markus Niemelainen. The mixed feeling came more so with Puljujarvi than the other two, considering he was drafted so high. There have been ups and down with all three, but at this point, the draft class for the Oilers seemed to come together.
Puljujarvi hasn’t lived up to the position he was drafted at and many have questioned the pick considering the talent that was picked around him. Most prominently the sixth and seventh overall picks, Matthew Tkachuk and Clayton Keller. Puljujarvi has 46 goals and 98 points in 265 career games and is currently playing in a third-line role for the Oilers.
He had a bumpy start to his NHL career that saw him bounce between the NHL and American Hockey League (AHL) before leaving North America altogether. When new management took over and he was convinced to come back, the Oilers appeared to get a much better version of the Finnish winger. He didn’t expect anything to be given to him and he worked from the bottom six to the first line within half a season. From there, Puljujarvi found chemistry with Connor McDavid and had a solid end to his first season back in the NHL and a great start to the 2021-22 season.
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Puljujarvi fell into a slump at an inopportune time after getting injured last season. He hasn’t been the same since and has struggled to produce offensively as he had in his first season and a half back in the NHL. With all the talent the Oilers possess at forward, it has made it difficult for Puljujarvi to gain traction over many others and earn back a spot in the top six.
However, the Oilers stuck with him this season once again and agreed to a one-year deal. Many thought he was going to be traded, before and after signing the deal. Instead, he has found a place on the Oilers’ third line that has been solid and underrated. They pressure the puck all over the ice, forecheck efficiently, and have the ability to score. The right-wing spot on the third line may be where Puljujarvi finds himself, not only this season, but the future. He appears to be a third-line talent with upside, so if he isn’t overpaid and produces, the Oilers would do well to keep him in that role. He is a great two-way player, and that’s a normal spot to find a player of that calibre (from ‘Lowetide: Can Oilers winger Jesse Puljujarvi be a modern Jere Lehtinen?,’ The Athletic, Oct. 12, 2022). He may not ever become that elite-level player, but he also brings good elements to the Oilers.
Tyler Benson had a ton of potential when the Oilers drafted him. They thought they got a steal early in the second round since he only got better throughout his development in the AHL. He was one of the best AHL players during his time there, which gave a ton of hope for what he could become with the Oilers. Unfortunately, he never found his footing in the NHL and wasn’t given more than a chance on the fourth line.
Benson wasn’t able to have the same offensive success as he did in the AHL due to his role in the lineup. But smart players change their game to stick around. He did just that and became a feisty player who forechecked hard and was physical. It allowed him to make the Oilers out of training camp in 2021-22 and he stuck around until the forward group got crowded.
Benson was showing signs of becoming one of those great AHL players that could never find their footing in the NHL. That was until he came out flying in the Oilers’ 2022-23 training camp. Unfortunately, it was cut short due to injury before he may have contested for one of the few forward spots up for grabs. Time will tell what will become of Benson. If he’s playing games in the NHL then he really worked hard and deserves it. If he’s in the AHL, he’s providing experience and knowledge to the prospects coming through the system on their way to the NHL.
Niemelainen went relatively unknown to most fans of the Oilers. He isn’t flashy and is a defensive defenceman. He worked hard and continued to play the game the way that makes him successful. That way is strong and physical. He got his chance last season when a number of Oilers’ defenders were out of the lineup at once. Luckily he did too, since he may not have the opportunity he has today if it weren’t for the games he got in the NHL.
Niemelainen made an immediate impact from game one in the NHL throwing his body around for huge hits. This is what the Oilers desperately needed at the time and still enjoy having in their lineup. A defenceman that makes life difficult for forwards is always a bonus, and he’s become poised with the puck in his own end.
He had a strong training camp, and even though he didn’t make the initial Oilers roster due to cap constraints, he was re-called soon after and has been part of the seven defence the team has been running. Jay Woodcroft would like to slowly work up his ice time over time so Niemelainen isn’t put in a position to fail. He already has 11 hits in four games and dressing seven defencemen gives the Oilers the freedom to ease him into a more prominent role. It’s not the conventional way of doing things, but it’s working. From an overlooked prospect in the system to a potential long-term third-pairing option, the Oilers definitely hit on their 2016 third-round selection.
The Oilers may not have any star power from their 2016 Draft, but they have important pieces in their organization because of the choices they made. This could go a long way and their contributions shouldn’t be overlooked.
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Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with NHL Stats News and trade talks.
You can find more of his work here.