Since early last season, Jesse Puljujarvi has held a spot on the Edmonton Oilers’ top line, finding a home to the right of superstar centre Connor McDavid. Other than the occasional switcheroo from head coach Dave Tippett, the Finnish right-winger has been a fixture on the right despite a revolving cast of characters on the left-wing, from Leon Draisaitl to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Zach Hyman.
But when the Oilers skated out for their road game against the Arizona Coyotes on Nov. 24, there was Zack Kassian lined up with McDavid and Hyman. Puljujarvi wasn’t on the second line, either. It wasn’t until the third shift of the game that the 6-foot-4 forward hopped over the boards with centre Ryan McLeod and left-winger Warren Foegele. After a mostly uninterrupted run of 70 games on Edmonton’s first line, Puljujarvi had dropped into the bottom six overnight.
It was considered a demotion by many because, well, how could it not be? A player doesn’t go from being fed passes by the greatest player on the planet to a checking line if they’re on the way up in the world. Puljujarvi’s output matched the narrative, too: At the time, he hadn’t scored a goal in over two weeks and had only registered a couple of assists.
There was legitimate concern about what this meant for the wildly popular Puljujarvi and how it would affect him. The 23-year-old is just beginning to tap into his potential and hasn’t even been back in Edmonton for 12 months. He returned from his native Finland in 2020-21 after spending a year regrouping because his first go-round with the Oilers was a soul-crushing experience.
But this apparent rebuke can actually be seen as a demonstration of faith in the loveable Finn. Sure enough, in his second game on the third line, Edmonton’s 3-2 road victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 27, Puljujarvi ended an eight-game goalless skid, scoring his first game-winning goal of the season.
Puljujarvi Has Grown in Self Confidence
During his first stint in Edmonton, from 2016-17 to 2018-19, Puljujarvi’s confidence seemed fragile and understandably so. Just months after being drafted fourth overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, he arrived in North America for the first time at age 18. Away from home, in a new country with a foreign language and a different culture, trying to find his place on a team plagued by coaching instability and general unrest, he was put in a position to succeed and languished.
When things went badly, they went very badly and quickly. In 2018-19, he didn’t score a goal after Jan. 6. In 2017-18, he went without a point in 16 of his final 17 games. Playing limited minutes and sometimes not even drawing into the lineup, Puljujarvi was mired by slumps he couldn’t get out of. It got so bad that after three years with the Oilers – 139 games with 17 goals and 20 assists – Puljujarvi returned home, and no one, probably himself included, was sure when or if he’d be back.
The player who returned to Edmonton after signing a two-year contract in October 2020 has more self-confidence and is not easily shaken. In his first 11 games last season, he didn’t score a goal and had only two assists, but Puljujarvi didn’t get down on himself. He went on to score 15 goals in his final 44 games to set a career-high.
Even during his scoring slump this month, Puljujarvi has been his usual self, smiling on the bench. He also hasn’t been a passenger, finding other ways to impact the game. This season, he leads Oilers forwards at 5-on-5 in Corsi (57.1%) and Fenwick (56.0%) and is second on the team with a plus-minus rating of eight. That Tippett knows he can move Puljujarvi down the lineup without adversely affecting the winger’s game is a testament to his newfound strength of character.
Puljujarvi Gets Chance to Drive a Line
On a line with quintessential third-liner Foegele, the 22-year-old McLeod, and Puljujarvi, it’s the latter who is “the man”. Rather than deferring to his star mates on the top line, Puljujarvi can now drive a line, which is valuable experience for his skillset and his confidence.
“We talk about McDavid driving his own line, we talk about Draisaitl driving his own line – Jesse can drive a line,” Tippett said during his media availability on Monday.
“I talked to Jesse about (taking a) leadership role. Let’s see if we can drive a third line, see if we can get more balance to it, and I love the way Jesse played the other night,” Tippett said of Edmonton’s win in Las Vegas. “He played fast, he went to the net, and created a nice goal on a breakaway, but it was more than that: the line was a factor in the game. So, Jesse’s not just a compliment player, he’s a driver and everything that we do stats-wise backs that up. So, why not try to use him more as a driver rather than a compliment player, and that’s what we’re trying.”
Puljujarvi Could Take On Different Roles in the Future
Puljujarvi now has seven goals and nine assists in 20 games, putting him on pace for 66 points in 82 games, which would be a tremendous season. As reflected in Tippett’s remarks, the Oilers want to spread out their skill, creating more balanced lines that can come at the opposition in waves, rather than putting all their stock in the first line. Puljujarvi is vital to this strategy.
Tippett has never shied from shaking up his lines; if Puljujarvi takes up something closer to permanent residence on the third line, it probably won’t be that long before he and McDavid are reunited. Moreover, just because a player doesn’t play in the top six doesn’t mean he’s not a top-six player. In the end, it doesn’t matter if Puljujarvi scores the game-winning goal on the first or third line. It only matters that he scored.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.