Oilers Should Start Puljujarvi on McDavid’s Wing This Season

Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi avoided his arbitration hearing when he put pen to paper and signed a one-year contract worth $3 million in average annual value (AAV) on July 26. Despite trade rumours, it looks as though the Finnish forward and the club are willing to give it at least one last try together for the 2022-23 season.

Puljujarvi might be the Oilers’ most polarizing player. On one side, the fan base views him as an analytics darling and on the other, a collective group feels he should be packaged in a trade. All things considered though, he produced decently last season with 14 goals and 22 assists in 65 games.

Heading into next season, the Oilers have a plethora of line combinations up front that would enable them to boast a dangerous top nine. Yet, it looks as though the first line right wing position is up for grabs. Kailer Yamamoto could be given the number one spot on the right side, after reaching the 20-goal plateau last season. Zach Hyman could slide over from his off-wing to take the spot on the right side next to Connor McDavid, and there’s always a possibility Phil Kessel could fill that spot if speculation comes to fruition. That said, below are reasons why the former fourth-overall pick from the 2016 NHL Draft should be given the first chance to ride shotgun with the Oilers’ captain to start the season.

Puljujarvi Has Been Training This Offseason and He’ll Be Motivated

Despite a decent regular season showing in the 2021-22 campaign, Puljujarvi’s play dipped in the postseason. In 16 games, he only tallied two goals and an assist and was ninth in ice time among the forward group, averaging 10:05 time on ice (TOI). It’s safe to say his confidence plunged by the season’s end.

However, it’s been reported that he’s been working hard this offseason. He’s been quoted as saying, “The plan is to enter the season with a full, hard attitude. Aiming for a better role and the plan is to give everything to the team. I want to play in a big role…This is the goal and that’s why I have practiced well all summer. Of course, I want to be a good player in a good team.” (from “I want to Play in a big Role: Jesse Puljujarvi With All the Right Words About New Season With Edmonton Oilers,” Edmonton Journal, 8/8/22).

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

Unfortunately, details weren’t given about his specific training program. However, Viima Hockey, who according to their Instagram bio describes themselves as “A unique individual coaching, from NHL stars to junior players” released a photo of seven professional hockey players training, and most notably, Puljujarvi and Carolina Hurricanes’ star Sebastian Aho were featured in the photo.

It can be assumed that a professional athlete of Puljujarvi’s calibre has worked with them to improve on the facets of the game that he struggled with late last season — most importantly handling the puck, shooting, and finishing.

On that note, confidence is a funny thing. Former NHL player and now hockey analyst Kelly Hrudey spoke about confidence as a professional hockey player, saying, “When you lose your confidence and you start to overthink, you’re in an area in which it’s really hard to dig out of.” If Puljujarvi spends an entire offseason firing pucks, picking corners, and improving his skill set, hopefully for him and the Oilers, he’ll head into the upcoming season full of confidence.

If he can maintain his tenacity and forechecking ability to create space for McDavid and Evander Kane, while adding an ability to finish, the Oilers’ top line will become more dangerous with two big wingers that can bury the passes of last season’s Art Ross Trophy winner, right from the get-go.

Puljujarvi Started Last Season Hot. Can He Repeat?

As previously mentioned, the analytics community adores Puljujarvi and the underlying numbers suggest he would be a good fit to start the season on a line with the Oilers’ captain, as he was exceptional with McDavid at 5-on-5 last season.

According to Natural Stat Trick, in 604 minutes, the pair posted a 59.57 Corsi for percentage (CF%), 58.77 SF% (count of shots for the selected team while that combination of players is on the ice), 69.39% GF% (percentage of total goals while that player is on the ice), 61.26 xGF% (expected goal for percentage) and 76.92 HDGF% (percentage of total goals off of high danger scoring chances in games that team played that are for that team).

At the same time, Puljujarvi produced very well to start the season last year. In the first 10 games, he tallied five goals and seven assists. It was a small sample size, but he proved he could get off to a hot start right out of the gate, and within that period, the team won nine out of 10 games. His play fizzled in his next 10 games, recording only two goals and two assists and he battled injuries and COVID-19 throughout the season and his confidence waned. But within those first 10 games, he looked confident with the puck and a legitimate top-six threat. Because of this, it would be worthwhile to see if he could replicate that style of play and maintain it throughout the season.

If Puljujarvi Falters on Top Line, It Gives Oilers Time to Assess Needs

Before Puljujarvi’s re-signing, there was chatter that the player and the team wanted to end their relationship, but it seems that they’re willing to give it one last go. The reality is, that this is a make-or-break season for the large winger. He has all the tools to become a bonafide top-six winger, but will he be able to put it all together?

Puljujarvi should be given 15-20 games to start the season on the number one line with McDavid and Kane. That should give general manager (GM) Ken Holland enough time to assess whether the former fourth-overall draft pick is taking the next step in his development. If he produces, great, the Oilers have an excellent two-way winger for at least the rest of the season and perhaps longer. But, if it’s clear that he’s not gelling in a first-line role, he could potentially form an elite third line with Ryan McLeod, and it will give Holland ample time throughout the season to decide if he needs to make a move for another right winger, instead of panicking and making a desperation move at the trade deadline.

Related: A Tribute to Edmonton Oilers Superfan Ben Stelter

The 2022-23 regular season doesn’t start for another couple of months and a lot can happen from now until then, but it seems like the plan is to have the Finnish forward in the Oilers’ lineup. With an offseason to reflect and improve his skills, he should be given the first shot alongside McDavid when they kick things off against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 12.

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