Oilers’ Puljujarvi Can Silence Critics With Big Playoff Performance

There are a few things that fans of the Edmonton Oilers and their mainstream media can agree on, such as Jay Woodcroft taking over as head coach turning the Oilers’ season around, who the best player on the team is, and that Rogers Place is loud, lively, and rambunctious come playoff time. Yet, one thing they seem to not be able to agree on is Jesse Puljujarvi’s contributions and effectiveness on the team.

On one side, he’s viewed as an advanced analytics dream by some. While he does not score in bunches, he does all the right things defensively and makes his linemates better. On the other side, there’s a perception that he’s not producing enough points while playing with arguably the best player in the world. He scored 14 goals and 22 assists in 65 regular-season games while playing 711 minutes alongside Connor McDavid. That said, all the negative chatter about the 23-year-old can be put to rest with a big playoff performance.

Puljujarvi Had Great Regular Season Advanced Analytics

Despite scoring at a 45-point pace in a full season, Natural Stat Trick shows that Puljujarvi had very good advanced analytics this past regular season. His Corsi (CF%) was 68.81, he had a 69.16 GF% (percentage of the total goals while a player is on the ice), 74.13 xGF% (shot quality to determine which team is expected to score more goals with a player on the ice), 60.41% SCF% (percentage of total scoring chances in games), 63.33 HDCF% (percentage of total high danger scoring chances) and 75 HDGF% (percentage of total goals off of high danger scoring chances). To put it into layman’s terms, the tide was in the Oilers’ favour when Puljujarvi was on the ice, even when he wasn’t producing points.

Media Is Concerned Over Puljujarvi’s Lack of Scoring

Although some of the Oilers’ mainstream media were quick to point out the fact that he only scored four goals in his last 30 games, on April 13, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector prodded for a soundbite from head coach Jay Woodcroft in regard to Puljujarvi’s lack of scoring, saying, “He’s in position to score a lot of goals, he’s getting lots of chances, and none of them are going in. How do you coach your way out of that, or do you stay out of it almost?”

Jesse Puljujarvi Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Woodcroft replied, “When it comes to hockey.. when it comes to offensive production, you worry when people aren’t getting the chances when they’re nowhere near an opportunity to finish. With Jesse, I think he does a lot of good complementary pieces for other people.” He added, “Especially for young players, it’s important to not just measure their game in their scoring statistics. When it’s not going in for you, you need things to hang your hat on. Sometimes that’s a finished check, sometimes that’s a play on the wall, sometimes that’s being good defensively.” Essentially, the head coach knew where the situation was heading and quickly avoided any negative talk about the young Finn. He was also quick to point out the things Puljujarvi does well, which the advanced analytics can attest to.

A day after, Spector highlighted once again the Finnish forward’s lack of scoring, but this time, to McDavid. He asked if there was any help that he could offer. The captain; however, also refrained from speaking negatively about the matter. He touched on the lack of scoring, but also highlighted the intangibles Puljujarvi brings to the team, saying, “You know, he’s doing other good things. He’s hard on the forecheck, he’s playing the right way and helping other guys out. Obviously, we’d like to see him score a few, but he’s doing a lot of other good things.”

Moreover, Hockey Hall-of-Fame writer, Jim Matheson, who infamously asked Leon Draisaitl earlier in the season, “Why are you so pissy?,” chimed in on Puljujarvi’s lack of scoring on Twitter recently, when he tweeted, “Can all the Jesse Puljujarvi supporters just take a deep breath. Yes, he absolutely does a number of good things but he is fighting it when he has the puck on his stick in offensive zone.”

Puljujarvi is Becoming One of the NHL’s Best Play-Drivers

From an outsider’s perspective, it appears some members of the Oilers’ mainstream media are looking for a negative narrative regarding Puljujarvi’s play, especially when it comes to his lack of scoring. However, there are other writers, including myself, who see it differently. Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic also shares the same view and recently wrote a piece giving praise to the young Finn.

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He stated the only player with a bigger impact on expected goals over the last two years other than McDavid is Puljujarvi. He also noted that he has excellent work down low. Most importantly, he stated that he may not produce a lot, but is quickly becoming one of the NHL’s best play drivers. He also mentioned that McDavid’s expected goal numbers are always stronger with Puljujarvi next to him (from “2022 NHL Playoff Preview: Oilers vs. Kings,” The Athletic, 5/1/22).

Throughout the season, I wrote articles praising his work away from the puck when he’s not scoring. The 23-year-old dives for loose pucks, executes timely stick lifts to keep plays alive, and screens goalies — just to name a few. Yet, at the same time, I feel he could benefit from working with a skills coach like Adam Oates to work on his finishing ability — but that’s not a bad thing. Puljujarvi’s teammate Darnell Nurse is a prime example. He worked with Oates in the summer of 2018. The following season, he increased his point total by 15.

Puljujarvi Has a Great Opportunity This Postseason

Puljujarvi missed 17 regular-season games, but he has an amazing opportunity ahead of him this postseason. The line combinations to start the playoffs look to be the same as the regular season, as he started on a line with Evander Kane and McDavid in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings. If he can produce points and score timely goals this postseason, that will be a surefire way to silence his critics.

But even if he’s not necessarily a point-per-game player in the playoffs, he can have a successful campaign in different ways. Playoff hockey is a different breed than the regular season and often lower scoring, but instrumental plays become memorable for years to come. A past example is Ryan Smyth losing teeth in the 2006 Playoffs. He returned after repairs and set up Shawn Horcoff for the game-winner in triple overtime against the San Jose Sharks. In the same miracle playoff run in 2006, players like Jarret Stoll or Ethan Moreau did not produce big points, but they were commended by many for their hard work and grit.

Related: What Makes Puljujarvi an Oilers’ Fan Favourite?

If Puljujarvi can go to the hard areas, make a game-saving block or two, make life troublesome for goalies and continue his “never say die attitude” to keep plays alive, those that look for a negative narrative of him will have to take notice and acknowledge all the positive things he does, because everything that happens in the postseason is under a microscope. At the same time, if he continues his defensive plays, makes his teammates better and chips in offensively — well, that’s just icing on the cake.

The Kings drew first blood by winning Game 1, as the young Finn was held off the scoresheet. Puljujarvi will have to be better for Game 2, along with the rest of the team. If the Oilers go down 0-2 in the series before heading to Los Angeles, the fans and the mainstream media will have one more thing to agree on — that no one would’ve predicted that outcome.

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