The Edmonton Oilers were able to gut out four points in the games against the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and a big part of that was due to the play of Jesse Puljujarvi— who’s seen an increase in ice time and taken on more responsibility on the first unit power play, since Zach Hyman went into COVID-protocol on Jan. 20.
The hulking 6-foot-4, 200-pound winger is starting to realize what a force his big frame is. He hasn’t piled up the points as of late, but he’s making great plays on the ice. If you hadn’t watched the games and only look at the box score at the end of the night, you’d think he didn’t make much of an impact. Yet, he’s winning puck battles, creating space for his linemates, and doing the dirty work that’s leading to key goals.
Puljujarvi Was a Key Factor in Oilers’ Wins
In last Saturday night’s win over the Flames, he was a huge factor in three out of five Oiler goals. Edmonton was down 2-0 early in the first period and they capitalized on a couple of power-play chances with goals by Evan Bouchard. The Oilers’ defenseman received the glory in the headlines, but Puljujarvi was the unsung hero. On both goals, he was the net-front presence, shuffled side to side, and fearlessly screened goaltender Jacob Markstrom to a perfection.
With just over five minutes to go in a 3-3 game, Puljujarvi — with his long reach — forced a turnover just inside the Oilers’ blueline, and his linemate Leon Draisaitl skated with the puck up ice. The focus was on the former Hart Trophy winner, but on the other side was Puljujarvi with an unheralded effort to get into the play. He bulldozed his way up the ice and Flames’ defender Oliver Kylington had no choice but to cover the winger. The big Fin used his big frame to cut to the middle of the ice, and the Flames’ defenseman was taken down in the process. It opened the middle of the ice for Draisaitl to attack — he took full advantage of the empty real estate and outwaited Markstrom to score the game-winning goal.
Depending on which team you were cheering for in the Battle of Alberta, it was viewed as either a great play from Puljujarvi, by using his size— or it was a blatant interference that he got away with. The play trended on Twitter, with the Athletic’s Darren Haynes — who covers the Flames — expressed that Puljujarvi pulled down Kylington to get to the net. On the opposite end, the Edmonton Journal’s Bruce McCurdy described it as a “won battle” between him and Kylington (from “Player Grades: “Bouch Bombs” Awaken Slumbering Oilers Power Play, Ignite Comeback Win Over Flames, “Edmonton Journal, 1/23/21). The stat line for the night showed that he had zero points in 21:43 of ice time. Nonetheless, the game-winning goal wouldn’t have happened so easily had it not been for the relentless effort by the right-winger.
He made an impact three nights later in a 3-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks. Down by a goal with 10 minutes remaining in the game, he once again was the net-front presence on the power play. Puljujarvi bullied Canucks’ defenders in the blue paint, but Edmonton wasn’t able to score on a flurry of chances. He won a big board battle behind the net, that kept the play and momentum alive. He poked the puck free which eventually landed on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ tape, who fired it over to Draisaitl to tie the game. Puljujarvi was originally credited with an assist on the play, which was later taken away. Again, he imposed his big body on the defenders and was a vital piece to the goal.
Head coach Dave Tippett is notorious for overplaying his veteran players, but against the Canucks, Puljujarvi played 21:53 (second highest of the season) and even saw the ice in overtime. Despite his lack of point production recently, it’s clear he’s earning the trust of his coaches.
Puljujarvi Still Has Untapped Potential
Since he’s returned from playing with Karpat in the Finnish Elite League last year, Puljujarvi has played in 91 games and tallied 50 points. At only 23 years of age, he’s still a couple more years away from hitting his prime. This season he seems to be adjusted to the North American style of play and only now starting to realize how to use his big frame to his advantage. When he hits his stride, he’ll more comfortably be able to outmuscle players to create space and opportunities.
He may only have four goals in the last 20 games, but he’s fourth on the team in shots on goal (98) and fourth on the team in points (25). Having said that, he’s more than just a big body on a line with Draisaitl and McDavid. He frequently gets prime scoring chances, has a heavy shot, but simply hasn’t been able to bury the puck as of late. Tippett spoke to the media about it last week, saying, “Jesse had a great chance in front of the net in the last game. Sometimes those go in and sometimes they don’t. We had an abnormal amount of those going in at the beginning of the year, and probably an abnormal, low shooting percentage the last little stretch.”
When a team isn’t winning or struggles to score goals — as much as the Oilers have as of late — players start to grip the stick a little tighter and it can feel like they have less time with the puck than they actually have. If Edmonton starts getting on a roll, it should ease the pressure on all of the players. The team has fired 120 shots on the net in the last three games, with eight of them coming off of Puljujarvi’s stick. The law of averages suggests that it’s only a matter of time before the puck starts going in the net for the big Fin.
As much as his offensive game has grown, his defensive game is beginning to shape up as well. When asked about Puljujarvi’s play against Calgary, Tippett spoke to his defensive acumen, “Jesse was a really good defensive player that game. You watch how many times he was the third-guy high, he cut off plays. He did a really good job. He didn’t get a lot of credit on the scoreboard, but there’s a lot of things he did very well in those games.” With his long reach, good reads, and agility to get in lanes quickly, maybe he’s ready for additional responsibility? The way he continues to progress, it wouldn’t be surprising if he receives a trial run on the penalty-killing unit in the future.
The puck hasn’t been going in for Puljujarvi lately, but he’s still on pace for the best offensive output of his career. If the Oilers have a 6-foot-4, 50-point winger that can outmuscle opponents for the next 10 years— I think they’re grinning about that just as much as he seems to always be.
First ever Ultimate MVP fan of the NHL as declared by Upperdeck – CBC Radio Oilers’ Fan Panel Analyst – Freelance Writer. Edmonton Oilers’ Sportswriter for the Hockey Writers.