The philosophy of the late Sam Pollock, one of the greatest general managers in NHL history, was never to trade a young player until he was completely certain of what was in him.
Oilers general manager Ken Holland, another Hall of Famer, thinks he either knows what he’s got in Jesse Puljujarvi and is shy, or he might be ready to shrug it off. caution and to treat the No. 4 pick of 2016 with untapped potential.
The very end of Holland’s 33-minute season-ending press conference last week sparked the most angst among Oilers fans when he expressed uncertainty about Puljujarvi’s future with the club. ‘organization.
“That’s what I have to sort out,” Holland said.
Holland has big decisions to make this summer. He is interested in re-signing wayward winger Evander Kane but will have to work out his limits on both salary and contract length. He could very well need to find another 1A goaltender if Mike Smith retires. He’s going to have to clear some cap space.
What he chooses to do with Puljujarvi, 24, might be the most important choice of all. Whether Holland keeps the restricted free agent with arbitration rights or trades him, the move has the potential to have a big impact on the Oilers in the short and long term.
Let’s explore the potential options and their ripple effects.
The case of the Puljujarvi trade
The Oilers are in winning mode now and must build the best possible team around world superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Does this include Puljujarvi? From a strictly attacking perspective, the last five months of the season have done little to support his case as a top-six striker.
He has four goals and 13 points — three goals and 11 points 5-for-5 — in his last 37 games. It’s not an ideal production, especially since just over half of his five-on-five ice time came next to McDavid (263 of 525 minutes).
Puljujarvi has scored just twice and added an assist in 16 playoff games – albeit mostly in a last-six role. He didn’t come back into the rotation as a guy in net on the first-unit power play until Kailer Yamamoto and Kane were out of the Colorado Series.
He went from such a factor offensively before the December break – 24 points in his first 28 games – to non-existent. Getting more offense from a top-six winger next season will be critical to the Oilers’ success, especially if they lose Kane in free agency.
The case against the Puljujarvi trade
Frankly, there is more to mention here.
Despite Puljujarvi’s limited attack in the final months of the season, he was excellent in other facets of the game.
From the December holiday break until the end of the regular season, Puljujarvi ranked first on the Oilers at five-for-five in field goal percentage (70.7) and Corsi in field goal percentage (59.4), per Natural Stat Trick. He was second in two other major categories — shots-per-cent (58.1) and expected goal percentage (60.3) — during the same span. Granted, a lot of that was next to McDavid, arguably the NHL’s best player, but Puljujarvi provided safe and reliable play alongside him.
Sure, the offense dried up, but he proved he had it in him.
Puljujarvi scored 15 goals in 55 games last season. He has scored 10 times in his first 28 games. Holland thinks lack of confidence has been a problem down the stretch. Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft also cited the time-starved winger with COVID, a lower-body injury that at least initially hampered his skating, and a season-ending illness. None of this helped his cause.
In the best-case scenario, Puljujarvi is spending his summer with a skills coach and practicing picking corners inside the home plate area and becoming a constant scoring threat next season.
At worst, he should be an effective two-way force on the third line next to someone like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Maybe the target should be higher for a No. 4 pick, but he’s not the type of player a team should turn their noses up at.
Puljujarvi hit a cap of $1.175 million last season and his qualifying bid is $1.41 million. If selected, the Oilers expect the arbitration-eligible winger to earn about $3 million in salary next season. It would still be effective at this price, even with negligible improvement.
What the Oilers could expect in return
Puljujarvi is either a solid top-nine player in the NHL who has plateaued, or he’s a season or two away from being knocked out and being one of the best two-way wingers in the game. Consider Colorado’s Valeri Nichushkin on that last front. Either way, there is some uncertainty.
So it’s unlikely, especially given the Oilers’ developmental stage, that Holland would be looking for an unknown commodity or change-of-scenes type player if he handed out Puljujarvi.
The most likely returns would be a more established but cost-controlled forward, a middle or lower pair defender, or a combination of one or two draft picks and/or a prospect.
Not only is Puljujarvi eligible for arbitration, but he can be an unrestricted free agent in 2025 – a year before his arb-eligible teammate Yamamoto. Puljujarvi should not break the bank this summer and three years is not exactly tomorrow. However, the Finnish striker could become more expensive in a year or two. Flipping it for someone who is locked into a multi-year contract would have its appeal for the Oilers from a cap standpoint.
Barring the unexpected, Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci and Evan Bouchard will be back to form three quarters of the Oilers’ top four defensively. Duncan Keith is under contract and seems more likely than not to fulfill the final year of his contract. Holland said he was interested in re-signing Brett Kulak. So, there’s a decent chance that Tyson Barrie will receive cap space and change the mix on the blueline. If that happens, Puljujarvi could be moved for a cheaper defenseman than Barrie and his $4.5 million cap.
Getting futures – picks and prospects – for Puljujarvi could be returned for another immediate help. It would also mean the Oilers take no money as they try to meet other big offseason needs like re-signing Kane or potentially upgrading scouting.
What the Oilers could look like without him
The Oilers are not in salary cap hell, but they are in salary cap boiling water.
By PuckPedia, the Oilers are $8 million under the cap but only have 15 players under contract. There are ways to open up space, like trading or moving injured defender Oscar Klefbom to LTIR or flipping Barrie or wingers Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian. The latter, however, may require a buyout.
Trading Puljujarvi — who isn’t part of this PuckPedia equation because he’s not under contract — would create a small projected margin. They might even be OK without him because they have Dylan Holloway coming in on an entry-level contract. The signing of free agent Russian winger Andrei Kuzmenko would also help. The Oilers met Kuzmenko, 26, in Edmonton this week. The striker is expected to make his decision next week. He can only sign an entry-level, one-year contract before being eligible for UFA status next summer, so the Oilers will get him on the cheap if he joins the team. Heck, he might beat Puljujarvi next season.
However, Holland and company must be careful before letting Puljujarvi go. Kuzmenko could very well sign elsewhere. Kane is by no means sure of returning. Not having one of those players and losing Puljujarvi could put the Oilers in a big hole if at least one suitable replacement — and ideally two — isn’t found. Jobs require strengths. Free agency is expensive and the Oilers don’t have a lot of money.
Dismissing a strong top nine with a projected cap of around $3 million is risky business at any time, but especially in this economy. If Puljujarvi takes the next step in his career and the Oilers don’t replace him properly, it will be a decision the organization will likely regret for years to come.
(Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today)