I originally thought the Edmonton Oilers should lock up Jesse Puljujarvi long-term while settling on a bridge deal for Kailer Yamamoto. This was in the first half of the 2021-22 season when Puljujarvi was hitting the scoresheet a lot, more often than Yamamoto. Both are restricted free agents after the season and are currently making the same amount of money.
I am not writing this to put down Puljujarvi, as he does a lot of things well that haven’t translated into goals and points this season. This is a look at how Yamamoto has elevated his game and should warrant the Oilers prioritizing a longer-term extension for him.
Yamamoto More of a Factor on Special Teams
There was a time when Puljujarvi and Zach Hyman were competing for a spot on the top power-play unit as the net-front man. Hyman won that battle, while the injury and scarce offensive production by Puljujarvi have further solidified that decision. Both can retrieve pucks, and even though Puljujarvi is the bigger body in front of the net, Hyman is more tenacious.
Speaking of tenacity, Yamamoto has often been called a honey badger because of his style. He is not afraid to lay the body on any opponent, no matter his size, and will go into the corners and retrieve pucks without hesitation. Unlike Puljujarvi, Yamamoto has been utilized on both the penalty kill and second power-play unit, while Puljuajrvi hasn’t seen time on either. That’s not to say he can’t kill penalties because I believe he could be a great penalty killer with his size and stick, but he has not been tasked with doing so. The Oilers also have more than enough bodies who are great shorthanded.
Through the first two games of their first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings, Puljujarvi has received no power play or penalty killing minutes, while Yamamoto has logged five minutes while up a man and 2.6 when down. As part of that penalty-killing unit, it has remained a perfect 8/8. He has also scored a power-play goal as a member of the second unit and has been much more productive since Jay Woodcroft took over as head coach and given them more ice time.
Yamamoto Has Elevated His Game at a Key Time
For the Oilers, the key time started with the coaching change when the team was out of a playoff spot. Everyone has had to pull together and find ways to win and play a dominant style of hockey. With one of the best records in the NHL since Woodcroft was hired on Feb. 10, Yamamoto contributed in all facets of the game.
In the last 35 games of the season, Yamamoto scored 12 goals and 25 points. He was also elevated to the top line for a stretch while Puljujarvi was out and scored at a pace expected while playing alongside the best player in the world, Connor McDavid. Yamamoto had an eight-game stretch where he scored in seven games with seven goals and five assists, which brought his multi-point game total during that stretch to five games.
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Yamamoto set a career-high in goals with his first 20-goal season. He also set a career-high in points with 41. Both of these totals are higher than Puljujarvi, but Puljujarvi played 16 fewer games. The rate at which both were scoring would suggest that Yamamoto had a better season offensively, with less time on the third-ranked power play in the league and more time on the second line than the first.
Despite his size at 5-foot-8, 153 pounds, Yamamoto tallied 114 hits this season while shooting at a 17.5 percent success rate. This may seem high, but throughout his career, he has never shot a ton and has a career shooting percentage of 15.2. He has found the confidence to shoot more, and it has been paying off.
Counter Argument That Oilers Should Still Prioritize Puljujarvi
Puljujarvi does a lot of good things that don’t show up on the scoresheet. Woodcroft spoke of Puljujarvi’s game last month saying, “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 complimentary things for other people.”
He is getting in the areas to score but finding it very difficult to bury pucks. That ended in Game 2 vs the Kings when McDavid made a perfect pass to set him up so that it would’ve been more difficult to miss. In the shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Puljujarvi missed two grade-A scoring chances. This was a combination of the performance Darcy Kuemper put on in net and also the lack of finish that was haunting Puljujarvi.
Puljujarvi just needs his confidence back, and he will be able to finish at a high rate to match the effort he puts out each night. His first 11 games on the top line saw him score six goals and 13 points, but the final 36 games of the season were a real struggle; he only tallied four goals and 11 points.
A game influenced by special teams can hurt Puljujarvi, as we saw in Game 1. He played the least of any player, getting only 7:52 of ice time since he doesn’t play on special teams. Though there were eight combined power plays between both teams in Game 2, Woodcroft saw Puljujarvi was much more engaged, and the Oilers were playing a complete game and dominating. Woodcroft has stressed that even though Puljujarvi has been in the right areas, he still needs to find his scoring touch to get that confidence back. A goal is a good start.
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It is a no-brainer for general manager Ken Holland to extend both of these players since they are young and have potential. But with the recent play of Yamamoto and Puljujarvi, the script has somewhat changed, whether that means the Oilers are willing to commit to Yamamoto for a longer-term than Puljujarvi, or Puljujarvi is given less money and locked up while Yamamoto is rewarded with a shorter prove-it contract after elevating his game at an important time. The performances from each of them in the playoffs will help clear things up a bit, but nobody should question whether or not they will be Oilers next season.