Oilers Playoff Hopes Heavily Depend on Jesse Puljujärvi

The Edmonton Oilers have recalled youngster Jesse Puljujärvi today. This comes as no surprise considering president and general manager Peter Chiarelli’s comments about the Oilers and their youth movement after firing head coach Todd McLellan. Puljujärvi had a short yet successful stint in the American Hockey League and we’re likely going to see a completely different deployment of the talented right-winger than we did in the McLellan era.

Many fans thought the usage of Puljujärvi under McLellan’s tenure was a disaster. Limited ice time coupled with linemates with limited skill weren’t optimal conditions for a budding star, but his level of play didn’t help.

He often looked lost, made some pretty untimely giveaways, and most of his stint this season was ineffective. However, there were bright spots in his game, and if the Oilers want to make a serious push for the playoffs this season Puljujärvi, along with a new voice in head coach Ken Hitchcock, will be the key to their success.

Oilers Need Puljujärvi to Produce at a Top-6 Level

The Oilers lack depth up front. A revolving door of unsuccessful wingers alongside McDavid and Draisaitl this season forced the coach’s hand in playing the two superstars together in an effort to generate some offense from the lineup. Unfortunately, this has left the Oilers in a pretty bad spot.

They’re an easy team to play against right now. Although it’s proven to be a pretty difficult task, if you can shut down the duo of #97 and #29, the Oilers just don’t have enough coming from other parts of the lineup to win. Draisaitl and McDavid both have 13 goals this year, and combined they account for 42% of the Oilers total goals.

Oilers Playoff Push Jesse Puljujarvi
Jesse Puljujarvi (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Chiarelli has been a disappointment the Oilers and their fans in a multitude of ways, but I think one of his biggest faults thus far is crippling their winger depth. As such, they’re now faced with a pretty tough task of getting a struggling youngster to produce at a top-6 level in order for the team to become competitive. If they don’t, this forward lineup is simply too thin to compete night in and night out.

The McDavid and Draisaitl duo may be enough to drag the team to a playoff berth by the skin of their teeth in an extremely weak division. But this just isn’t the key to long-term success. The San Jose Sharks aren’t going anywhere, and with the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes’ youth movement, the Pacific is only going get more competitive.

Puljujärvi Producing Provides a Secondary Threat

Drasaitl has proven he can produce in just about any situation. Although he’s most productive playing on the right side of #97, he’s the next best forward who can really drive offense on his line. If the Oilers place Puljujärvi on the first line with McDavid and drop Draisaitl down to the second line with Ryan Spooner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the Oilers all of a sudden have a triple threat down the lineup.

Caggiula – Mcdavid – Puljujärvi
Spooner – Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl
Lucic – Brodziak – Kassian

That is a lineup that can compete in today’s NHL. Although we haven’t seen much offense from the Milan Lucic line, they dominated against the Anaheim Ducks. Hitchcock, at least so far, has placed Lucic in a situation where he is more likely to succeed. And from the level of play we’ve seen from the big man in the last calendar year, that’s a pretty tough feat.

Hitchcock’s next task is going to be to try to find a way for Puljujarvi to contribute in a positive way, and I really can’t think of any other situation where he can except on one of the Oilers’ top two lines.

Is It Too Much to Ask of the Young Winger?

Realistically, yes. But it’s the position Chiarelli has put the team in and the fan base is getting fed up with the team’s constant failure. With the Oilers being tight to the cap, scoring is going to have to come from within the organization, and that starts with Puljujärvi. Let’s not forget that he is only three years removed from being an offensive force in a league full of men. Most fans referred to it as a gift when he fell to the Oilers at fourth overall. He is now in his third year of North American pro hockey and simply needs to make something happen.

Oilers’ Struggles Will Match That of Puljujärvi’s

From what we’ve seen from Puljujärvi this season, he could be a non-factor. If that’s the case, the Oilers will continue the 2018-19 season with a significant handicap in terms of winger depth. Enough of a handicap to miss the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 years.

But whether or not the winger continues to struggle is debatable. It was fairly obvious he lacked confidence at the start of the season, and I believe he wanted to get the puck off his stick as fast as it got there. But for a young player entering the best league in the world, the coach can often make an insurmountable difference in a player’s development and confidence. There is no question McLellan had an extremely short leash on him, and with the fear of being benched or disciplined in the back of Puljujärvi’s mind, he simply wasn’t able to play his best.

Given the comments made by Hitchcock yesterday, he believes Puljujärvi can help this team win now. I don’t think there is much more of a confidence boost you can give to the kid, coming from one of the best coaches in the history of the game, and he’s just had a very productive stint in the American League.

A lot of fans envisioned Puljujärvi lighting the lamp on McDavid’s right side for the foreseeable future when he was drafted. And although he was skating with the Oilers’ fourth line at practice yesterday, I can’t help but think Hitchcock will have him alongside #97 sooner rather than later.