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Is Jesse Puljujärvi the Next Nichushkin or an Expendable Middle Sixer?
The Oilers are ready to move on from the Finnish forechecker - is that a disaster waiting to happen?
The Edmonton Oilers have a cap space problem. To be specific, they don’t have a lot of it. Even bringing back the team that qualified for the Conference Finals will be difficult, with Evander Kane, Brett Kulak, Kailer Yamamoto, Ryan McLeod, and Jesse Puljujärvi all unsigned and less than $9 million in space remaining. Considering that the team arguably also needs a starting goalie, an improved blueline, and better forward depth, it’s unsurprising that Ken Holland and co. are looking for ways to shed money.
From all indications, it would appear that one solution the organization has identified is trading former 4th overall pick Jesse Puljujärvi before July 13th. The restricted free agent has a low qualifying offer and likely won’t break the bank on his next deal, but his gangly skating stride and lack of offensive creativity or finishing touch landed him in the bottom six in the playoffs, and the coach and GM appear to have run out of patience with him.
Many Edmonton writers and fans alike are fine with this course of action. Puljujärvi has never produced to the level expected of him back in 2016, scoring at a 41 point pace in his past two seasons with Edmonton despite playing 81% of his minutes with one or both of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But there has also been tremendous backlash to this idea, particularly from analytically-inclined observers. Puljujärvi’s strong underlying numbers would seem to suggest un-reaped potential, and his on-off splits with the Oilers’ stars suggests that even when he isn’t producing, he still creates better outcomes when he’s on the ice with #97 and #29. They argue that trading him at the low-point of his value - when he’s coming off a season of near-league worst finishing and might only get a 3rd round pick in return - would be foolish.
So what’s going on here? Is Puljujärvi destined to become the next Valeri Nichushkin, discarded prematurely by the team that drafted him high only to turn into a major impact player on his new team? Or is he a replaceable third wheel who will fizzle out when he can no longer piggy-back on generational talent?
Profiling Jesse Puljujarvi Analytically
Puljujarvi’s impact on scoring chances at both ends of the ice is remarkable. Adjusted for teammates, competition, zone starts, etc., the Oilers create a lot more chances and prevent a lot more chances against when he’s on the ice, and those results have been consistent across his past two seasons. Despite the fact that he has struggled on the powerplay and ranks very poorly in terms of finishing his scoring chances, he still grades out as having a very strong impact.
Despite a relative lack of production, a big reason that many analytically-inclined fans think so highly of Puljujärvi is the way that McDavid and Draisaitl perform better with him on the ice. For example, this season, the combo of McDavid and Puljujarvi outscored opponents 34 to 15 when they were on the ice together, but McDavid without Puljujärvi only outscored them 39 to 35. Scoring chance and shot metrics told a similar story; while Puljujärvi obviously isn’t the driver on these lines it seems undeniable that something in his game helps Connor be his best self.
That’s what the results look like at a macro-level, but it doesn’t really get into the how of his game. I’ve recently teamed up with stat tracker Corey Sznajder to create player cards that show more detailed micro-level metrics, which show the nuances of a player’s game and help us understand the process behind the results.
On the offensive side, Puljujärvi ranks fairly well at creating shots and chances, decently in transition, and miserably at playmaking. Defensively, he pressures opposing defencemen on the forecheck at an elite level and is a fair puck retriever in his own end. He is the beneficiary of a lot of high-danger passes, which makes it all the more egregious that he scored eight goals below expected this season - expected goal models can’t factor in pre-shot passing, so with a perfect model that number might be even worse.
All told, with Puljujärvi we have some clear strengths and some glaring weaknesses.
The strengths are why his underlying results are so strong. Despite not being the most aesthetically pleasing skater, Puljujärvi can get up the ice quickly and it helps him create shots off the rush: he ranks in the top 17% of forwards in that category in each of the past two seasons. Does playing with Connor McDavid make that job a little easier? Probably, but keeping up with #97 isn’t the easiest thing in the world either. This mobility is also what makes him a useful forechecker, a major similarity to Nichushkin. That skill is on display in this game tape I clipped last season:
While some Oilers fans stereotype him as “not willing to go into dirty areas” (gee, I wonder why they might say that), the opposite is true. Puljujärvi, like Nichushkin, is fully willing to use his size along the boards and in the slot. In 2020-21 he ranked in the top 10% of forwards in puck battle wins per 60 (I unfortunately don’t have that stat this season), and while he’s willing to shoot from everywhere he does create plenty of chances from in tight.
The weaknesses are there, though, and they’re pronounced. It should go without saying that two of the most important skills a forward can have, especially one who’s expected to play a big role in the top six, are shooting and passing, and he is not exactly abundantly talented in those areas.
Puljujärvi might be good at creating shots, but he’s a bit below-average at best and awful at worst at actually putting them in the net. He’s scored at a below-expected rate every season of his career, culminating in his -8.2 goals above expected performance this past season. Some regression in that area is probably coming next season, but it’s a red flag that while playing next to arguably the two best passers on the planet he still struggles to score.
Meanwhile, his passing game is borderline non-existent. His 3.9 primary shot assists per 60 last season ranked 350th out of 367 forwards, comparable to such playmaking luminaries as Wayne Simmonds and Josh Anderson. He’s ranked way below-average in that and pretty much every other passing metric in every season of his career, surprising since it was one of his biggest assets as a prospect. To me, this is the biggest red flag with his progression and particularly the comparison to Nichushkin. Even in his final disastrous season with Dallas, which led to his buy-out, when Nichushkin was stuck in a system and role that did not fit his game whatsoever, he always kept his passing metrics above water and they flourished when he got to play with more talent in Colorado. Puljujärvi just doesn’t seem to have that creativity or ability with the puck; that’s one reason that he hasn’t made any impact on the powerplay too. It’s tough to get around the fact that Puljujärvi has registered a point on only 47% of the 5v5 goals that the Oilers have scored with him on the ice in the past two seasons. Out of 333 forwards with over 1000 5v5 minutes played in that time, that ranks 329th, right behind Trevor Lewis and Jason Dickinson. That stat doesn’t mean everything, but it is an indication that his limitations are holding him back.
So what do we make of Jesse Puljujärvi? What is he ultimately worth both in a trade and as a restricted free agent?
It is not impossible that we might see Puljujärvi one day produce at a strong level, but I am skeptical that it will happen. He possesses all the skills that make a forward a useful third-wheel in the Pascal Dupuis mold and few of the ones that project to lead to major point production. His wheels, forechecking, and knack for getting open in dangerous places could get him far, especially if he ends up on a team where he can continue to play next to stars. But unless he can make huge strides in shooting and especially passing, ultimately his ceiling is limited.
So the question remains: should the Oilers trade him?
I don’t think so. While I might sound bearish on Puljujärvi, the player I just described is one whose skillset teams (like the Oilers, for instance) typically find extremely valuable and tend to pay a lot of money to as free agents, Josh Anderson being one example. Despite that, his value seems pretty low. The dual facts that Puljujärvi, as an RFA coming off of two relatively unproductive seasons, is both likely to be cheap and not very highly valued around the league at the moment leads me to think that now is not the time to pull the plug. Even if they might not be embarrassed by a Nichushkin-level glow-up in a few years, Puljujarvi is probably more valuable in the lineup than not, and the Edmonton Oilers will likely regret trading him at the low point of his value.
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