The Winnipeg Jets at the Draft: Jesse Puljujärvi

Jesse Puljujärvi or Patrik Laine?

This is the choice that could be facing the Winnipeg Jets on June 24 in Buffalo, and what a choice it is! To choose between Puljujärvi and Laine is to make a choice every team in the NHL, save perhaps the Maple Leafs, will envy, but that doesn’t mean the Jets won’t agonize a bit over it between now and draft day.

While Laine has a sniper’s killer instinct and is viewed as the more dynamic goal scorer of the two, Puljujärvi  is the more consistent player, according to scouts. He’s been around the top of this year’s draft charts nearly as long as Auston Matthews, and while his shot isn’t quite at the same level as Laine’s, his speed is better, his size is comparable, and his playmaking ability is well ahead of his countryman’s.

While some may say Puljujärvi isn’t as dynamic as Laine, anyone who watched him tear apart the WJC would argue the kid is dynamic enough in his own right. He finished with an incredible 17 points in 7 games and that, along with his respectable 28 points in 50 games in league play with Kärpät, gives him plenty of laurels to rest on before the draft. Since he was still eligible for the World Under-18s in Grand Forks, Puljujärvi decided to go play and boost his draft stock one more time this season, and he didn’t disappoint.

Ken Wiebe perhaps understates Puljujärvi’s impact here. He was effective throughout the tournament and finished it off with a dynamite performance in the gold medal game against Sweden.

The more I watch this kid play, the more I think the Jets are going to have a tougher decision to make than many fans thought. The Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, have the easiest pick in the draft at number three.

Decisions, Decisions

As mentioned above, one thing that separates Laine and Puljujärvi is the former’s sniping skills. Puljujärvi doesn’t have quite as heavy or devastating a shot as Laine, but since Laine has been drawing Alexander Ovechkin comparisons with his shot, that’s not a huge mark against Puljujärvi. A mark in his favour is his puck distribution. Laine has improved in this area, but he still generates a lot of offense by just parking in the slot and waiting for the puck to find him. Not that this strategy hasn’t work and won’t continue to work, but Puljujärvi is very capable of making his own offense, and setting it up for others.

Both players have dynamic hands and crafty minds for the game, but Puljujärvi has the better foot speed of the two. His maturity and two-way game are laudable, especially for a player of his age, and here again he has a slight edge over Laine, who needs a bit of work.

YouTube player

Both men are monsters on the power play, just for different reasons, with Laine being the trigger man and Puljujärvi being more of a distributor. You can imagine why, in tandem, the two were so effective at the WJC. That they might carry that effectiveness into other international tournaments for years to come has to be exciting for Finnish fans.

Heck, this whole year should be exciting for Finnish fans, as they’ve taken gold at the WJC, U18s, and have now set their sights on the men’s World Hockey Championship. Between that and the fact that it’s the best draft class to come out of Finnish hockey in decades, maybe ever, (two Finns are going to go in the top three, and a third could go in the top eight, that being London’s Olli Juolevi), it’s been a good year for Finnish hockey.

The Jets stand to be the beneficiaries of that big year (or rather, one of the beneficiaries, because I don’t see the Jets pulling a Brian Burke and getting both players, amazing as that would be). They have a delightful conundrum to solve in choosing between Puljujärvi and Laine.

In the end, Laine’s stats likely tip the scales in his favour, especially in the playoffs. After all, he did outplay Puljujärvi in a playoff series and was named playoff MVP (though Puljujärvi’s 9 points in 10 games is impressive as well). Laine has been compared to Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin, and for a Jets team in need of a sniper, that temptation will, in all likelihood, prove too much to resist.

It’s almost a shame to see Puljujärvi, who burst onto the scene at the WJC as a double-underager in 2015 and has been on the 2016 draft radar ever since, slip behind his fellow Finn. As befits his reputation of consistency, he was ranked second overall behind Matthews for almost a year and a half before Laine exploded into the conversation. Not that whoever drafts him is going to be unhappy, or that he’ll fall very far.

The Winnipeg Jets have a fantastic yet painful choice to make on draft day. Their two biggest consolations are this: they’re going to get an unbelievable player, and if Columbus keeps the pick (I’d bet on that) then the other guy doesn’t play in their conference to potentially make them regret the choice five times a year.

Picking third overall, the Columbus Blue Jackets, again, have the easiest pick in the draft.