Puljujarvi Demoted: Long Overdue or Smart Play?

The Edmonton Oilers made some roster moves today that most have expected for some time. After a loss to the Ottawa Senators on Sunday, the Oilers announced that Jesse Puljujarvi has been sent to the Bakersfield Condors of the AHL. In addition, Edmonton has waived backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson and recalled Anton Slepyshev.

Puljujarvi: What Took So Long?

It’s tough to explain why it took so long for the Oilers to move Puljujarvi. After scoring in his first game of the season against the Calgary Flames, Puljujarvi went scoreless over his next 27 games. He didn’t average much ice time and last Thursday against the Boston Bruins saw a season low of only 3:27.

It appears as though by delaying Puljujarvi’s demotion to the AHL — where he will see tons of playing time and on the top line — Edmonton has also burned a year of his entry-level eligibility and made certain he’ll become an unrestricted free agent (UFA) by the age of 25 instead of 26.

This also makes Puljujarvi eligible for restricted free agency after the 2017-18 season. By keeping him beyond the team’s 40th game this season he stands to get his second contract sooner than he might otherwise. It’s a move that runs counter to what the Oilers did with Leon Draisaitl two years ago, sending him back to junior just after Game 39 of the 2014-15 season and this decision suggests that Puljujarvi’s stint in the AHL will only be as long as it takes him to start putting up some real points.

Best Thing For Puljujarvi

This move to Bakersfield is by far the best thing for the 18-year-old Finnish forward. In Edmonton, he was watching games and not playing in them. Even when dressed, Puljujarvi was an on-looker, often waiting for an opportunity, playing on the fourth line or serving penalties for other players. He was provided very short glimpses of playing time with some of the Oilers most highly skilled forwards, but those opportunities were few and far between. For a rookie that the Oilers hope will be a major factor for them in the future, game action, and lots of it is the answer.

In Bakersfield, Puljujarvi will see likely more playing time than any other forward. He’ll play power play minutes and be provided the top opportunities where his confidence should soar.

Justifying the Decision

Many in the media, fans and hockey experts seem to agree that Puljujarvi’s assignment was long overdue. The Oilers apparently had other plans. Because it’s tough to comprehend how such an obviously positive move took so long to transpire, perhaps there is more to the story than many of us know.

Jesse Puljujarvi
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this season, a KHL team (Ak Bars Kazan) was trying to acquire Puljujarvi’s rights. Is it possible that Puljujarvi’s camp wanted a certain amount of games played or he would consider some KHL opportunities? Perhaps the Oilers wanted him easily accessible for a future call-back.

Maybe Puljujarvi’s demotion was salary related. On the surface, it seems a strange decision to move the player immediately following his 40-game deadline and make him eligible for his second contract earlier than he should have been. The counter argument is that with Puljujarvi eligible sooner; when it comes time to determine his next salary, the Oilers will be looking at first year numbers in the NHL that were not very productive. It also means delaying the big production that would make him a higher salary cap hit. Maybe a bridge contract was in the Oilers’ plans. Perhaps Puljujarvi’s camp wanted early UFA eligibility and they and the Oilers worked out a gentlemen’s agreement.

The human element may have had something to do with this decision as well. An 18-year-old kid, in a different country for the first time, with an obvious language barrier and being demoted around the holidays, might not have gone well around Christmas. Perhaps Edmonton felt the better long-term play was to treat him well, let him get comfortable in the city, spend time with his family and help him understand the ups and downs of the NHL. The Oilers may have wanted to show him they had his best interests as a person at heart and if it became clear he wasn’t ready (which it did) then he’s been treated right, he’s comfortable and now down in the minors contributing in a major way. There is no time limit to how long he spends there and the trip could be short-term.

Jonas Gustavsson

(Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)
(Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

In a move that seems similarly obvious, the Oilers waived their backup goaltender. Gustavsson will likely go unclaimed and report to Bakersfield. In exchange, AHL starter Laurent Brossoit will likely be called up or the Oilers may look to the waiver wire where Columbus Blue Jackets backup Curtis McElhinney is now available.

Gustavsson was always a controversial signing. He was considered one of the weaker options available in free agency and was signed early on the first day by the Oilers. Gustavsson has a low .878 sv% and pretty poor 3.10 goals against average. In his seven starts, he has only one win.

Anton Slepyshev

Slepyshev will be recalled and get time as Edmonton’s 13th forward. There was a stint where Slepyshev was extremely productive. He was getting time on all four lines, forechecking agressively and affecting the outcome of the games, even if he wasn’t scoring regularly. He’ll get another chance to show his stuff.