Edmonton Oilers’ restricted free agent forward Jesse Puljujarvi’s arbitration hearing is set for July 29 and using Pittsburgh Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen’s recently signed two-year deal worth $3.2 million average annual value (AAV) as a comparable, it’s looking more and more likely that he will be awarded a contract with a cap hit north of $3 million AAV.
TSN’s Ryan Rishaug reported early in July that a few teams have shown interest in the 24-year-old winger, but there hasn’t been any chatter as of late. That said, if Puljujarvi is willing to stay and play in Alberta’s capital, here are four reasons why the Oilers should not trade away the tenacious forward.
Puljujarvi Is One of the Oilers’ Best Defensive Forwards
Puljujarvi is perhaps the Oilers’ most polarizing player. The analytics community loves him and the fans that love rough and tumble hockey view him as a frustrating player to watch. All things considered, he delivered quite well offensively on his previous $1.175 million AAV contract. In 65 games he tallied 14 goals and 22 assists; however, the knock on him is that he played 84 percent of his 5-on-5 five minutes with either Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl and there’s an expectation for a former fourth-overall pick to produce more offensively, especially with those two elite players.
That may be true, and visually, he may look clumsy at times, bobbling pucks or falling down in scoring opportunities, but there’s no denying that he may be Edmonton’s best defensive forward. He uses his big reach to subtly break up plays and actively gets his body in shooting lanes, which often goes unnoticed. He’s also usually in good position and doesn’t cheat for offense in the defensive zone.
The analytics also support that he has a good two-way game. According to Natural Stat Trick, he was second on the Oilers with a 61.81 Corsi (CF%), behind only McDavid. He was second on the team in the regular season in expected goals for at 65.93 xGF%, third on the team in plus/minus at plus-22 and at 5-on-5 he had the 58th best goal differential in the NHL. To top it off, he was the only Oiler to receive a Selke Trophy nomination — annually awarded to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.
Additionally, SportLogiq has him in the top third of forwards in offensive zone pucks recovered, puck battle wins, and rebounds recovered, which they ranked him 24th in the NHL. For a team like the Oilers that allowed 55 goals against in 16 games last postseason, it seems they should be better utilizing a player that excels in the defensive aspects of the game. If Puljujarvi re-signs and stays with Edmonton next season, with his big reach to get his stick in lanes, they should start using him on the penalty kill.
Puljujarvi Could Work Well With Ryan McLeod
I can understand why some of the Oilers fan base is frustrated with Puljujarvi’s lack of finishing ability. However, in the first 10 games last season, he tallied five goals and seven assists, which shows that when he’s confident, he can go on hot stretches. But throughout the season, he battled injuries and also COVID-19, and it seems like he lost confidence and was never able to regain traction.
That said, Puljujarvi has all the tools to become a force in the league, but it seems what’s holding him back could be the mental aspect of the game. He should work with a skills coach this offseason and go into next season full of confidence to see what he can do in the top-six. Although, if he legitimately isn’t able to crack the top-six, he could be part of a solid third line with Ryan McLeod.
In over 41 minutes playing with McLeod in last season’s playoffs, the pair had a 64 CF%, a 68.98 xGF% (expected goals for percentage), and an 84.62 HDCF% (percentage of total goals off of high danger scoring chances while that combination of players is on the ice). Plain and simple, the pair was tremendous together in the postseason, which is a time of year when the level of play is elevated.
Both players are big, fast, and defensively responsible with the ability to produce offensively. If forward Dylan Holloway was added to the mix, the trio could form a youthful line that can provide speed and tenacity while being able to chip in on the scoreboard. If Puljujarvi can’t become a true top-six forward, there’s still value in an elite-third line winger that can move up and down the line up when injuries occur.
The Oilers Lack Depth at Right Wing
At the NHL Draft on July 7, the Oilers traded right-wing Zack Kassian to the Arizona Coyotes, as it was an essential move to free up much-needed cap space. Nevertheless, his departure thinned the depth chart on the right side. Oilers colour commentator, Bob Stauffer recently tweeted projected lines based on the current roster:
Stauffer has Zach Hyman out of his preferred position of left-wing and slots him on the right side. He also has Holloway, a left-handed shot, on his off-wing, which is questionable for a rookie. If the Oilers moved Puljujarvi for draft picks, it creates yet an even bigger void for the Oilers to fill on the right side. Not only that, but he’s currently Edmonton’s biggest forward, and for years through their “Decade of Darkness” the team was often criticized for lacking size, and now they finally have that hulking player and shouldn’t let him go so easily.
Oilers Won’t Receive Full Value for Puljujarvi if Traded
Many hockey pundits feel it’s time for Puljujarvi and the Oilers to move on from one another, and if that is truly the case, they should wait for at least one more season. Recently, Oliver Bjorkstrand was traded to the Seattle Kraken, as the 27-year-old forward recorded a career-high 28 goals and 29 assists in 80 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Yet, he was only traded for third and fourth-round picks, which seems like a steal for the Kraken.
At this point in their careers, it’s a safe assumption that Bjorkstrand is a better player than Puljujarvi, and if that’s the mild return for a player that put up 0.71 points-per-game (P/G), I can imagine the return for Puljujarvi, who recorded 0.55 P/G, would be significantly less. If he is only able to return mid-round draft picks in a trade, the Oilers are better off keeping him. Despite what many hockey pundits say, I believe there’s value in a 6-foot-4, defensively responsible forward that can skate and has shown the ability to produce points when his confidence is high.
At best, Puljujarvi is a top-six forward, and at worst, he becomes a good two-way third-line player. The perfect scenario for next season is that he records over 40 points with the Oilers, and if he feels it’s still time for him and the organization to part ways, they should be able to get a better return for him next offseason with potentially a higher salary cap, than what the market is currently dictating.
The Oilers have to re-sign Puljujarvi and restricted free agent (RFA) Kailer Yamamoto, who are both expected to earn over $3 million AAV. Also, RFA McLeod will need to be re-signed as well, and with only $5.5 million in available cap space with Mike Smith and Oscar Klefbom on long-term injury reserve, it’s almost inevitable that a move will be made, meaning things are about to get very interesting in Oil Country.