Oilers GM Ken Holland, another Hall of Fame, either thinks he knows what he has in Jesse Pulgwarvi and is acting shy, or he might be willing to direct caution to the wind and treat the 2016 No. 4 pick with some untapped potential.
The end of the 33-minute Dutch season closing press conference last week sparked the biggest concern among Oilers fans when he expressed his uncertainty about Puljujarvi’s future with the organisation.
“That’s what I have to sort out,” Holland said.
The Netherlands has some important decisions to make this summer. He is interested in re-contracting tempered winger Evander Kane but will have to set his limits in terms of salary and contract length. He may very well need to find another 1A goalkeeper if Mike Smith retires. He will have to empty the cover space.
What he chooses to do with Puljujarvi, 24, may be the most important choice of all. Whether the Netherlands retains or trades in the restricted free agent rights to arbitrate, this move has the potential to dramatically affect Oilers in the short and long term.
Let’s explore the potential options and their ripple effects.
Puljujarvi . trade case
The Oilers are in winning mode now and need to ice with the best possible squad around all-world superstars Conor McDavid and Leon Drysittle. Does that include Puljujarvi? From an offensive point of view, the final five months of the season have done little to bolster his case as a striker among the top six strikers.
He has had four goals and 13 points – three goals and 11 points from five to five – over his last 37 games. That’s not a perfect production, especially since just over half of his five-to-five ice time came right next to McDavid (263 of 525 minutes).
Puljujarvi scored only two goals and added one assist in 16 playoffs – albeit mostly in the last 16. He only resumed being part of the spin as the clear front man in the first power play unit when Kyler Yamamoto and Ken missed out on the Colorado series.
He went from being an offensive factor before the December holiday break – 24 points in his first 28 games – to being nonexistent. Getting more humiliation from a sixth-place player next season will be critical to the Oilers’ success, especially if they lose Kane in free agency.
The case against trading Puljujarvi
Honestly, there’s more to mention here.
Despite the limited attack from Puljujarvi in the final months of the season, he was excellent in other aspects of the game.
From the December holiday break through the end of the regular season, Puljujarvi ranked first over the Oilers by five-to-five in goals percentage (70.7) and Corsei by percentage (59.4), on the Natural Stat Trick. It ranked second in two other notable categories – Shots Percentage (58.1) and Expected Goal Percentage (60.3) – during the same time period. Sure, a lot of this was on the side of McDavid, who is arguably the best player in the NHL, but Puljujarvi provided safe and reliable play by his side.
Sure, the offense dried up, but he proved he had it.
Bolgoarvi scored 15 goals in 55 matches last season. He scored 10 times in his first 28 games. Holland believes that the lack of trust has been an ongoing problem. Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft also noted the winger lost time with COVID, a lower-body injury that at least initially hampered his skating and illness late in the season. None of these things helped his cause.
The best case scenario is for Puljujarvi to spend the summer with a skills trainer and practice picking corners from within the main board area and become a constant threat to score for next season.
At worst, he would have to be an effective two-way force on the third line next to someone like Ryan Nugent Hopkins. Maybe the goal should be higher in picking a number 4, but that’s not the kind of player any team should be keeping their nose up for.
Puljujarvi had a cap of $1.175 million last season and his qualifying bid of $1.41 million. If retained, the Oilers expect the referee-eligible winger to earn close to $3 million in salary next season. It would still be effective at this price even with a slight improvement.
What can Oilers look for in return?
Puljujarvi is either a solid top nine player in the NHL who has settled or he’s one or two seasons away from falling apart and being among the best two-way winger players in the game. Think Valery Neshushkin of Colorado in the last introduction. Either way, there is some uncertainty.
Therefore, it is unlikely, especially given that the oil bidders are in their development stage, that the Netherlands would seek an unknown commodity or landscape-changing type of player if it takes on Puljujarvi.
Returns are likely to be more established but cost controlled, medium or low man defense or a combination of draft pick or two and/or probability.
Not only is Puljujarvi eligible to arbitrate, he could be an unrestricted free agent in 2024 – two years earlier than fellow ARB qualified Yamamoto. Puljujarvi is not expected to break the bank this summer and two years not quite tomorrow. However, the Finnish striker may become more expensive next summer, with a year of walking around. His flip for someone locked in a multi-year deal would have appeal to Oilers from a cover perspective.
Barring something unexpected, Nurse Darnell, Cody Cisse and Evan Bouchard will return to form three-quarters of the Oilers’ top four in defense. Duncan Keith is under contract and looks likely not to honor the final year of his deal. Holland said he’s interested in re-signing Brett Colak. So, there’s a good chance he’s dealing with Tyson Barry to make cover space and change the mix on the blue streak. If that happens, Puljujarvi can be transferred for a cheaper man of defense than Barrie and his $4.5 million hit.
Get Futures – Snapshots and Prospects – for Bolgoarvi can be flipped for other immediate assistance. It could also mean Oilers aren’t taking any money while trying to tackle other big off-season needs like Kane’s re-sign or netminding upgrade.
How can oilers look without it
Mazes aren’t in a salary cap hell, but they are in a salary cap boiling hot water.
According to PuckPedia, Oilers costs $8 million under the cap but only has 15 players under contract. There are ways to unlock a space such as trading or moving injured defenseman Oscar Clevbaum to LTIR, heart Barrie or wards Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian. The latter may require an offset purchase, though.
Trading the Puljujarvi – which is not part of the PuckPedia equation because it is not contracted – will create a predictable little room. They might be fine without him because they have Dylan Holloway coming on an entry contract. The signing of Russian winger’s agent Andrei Kuzmenko will also help. The Oilers’ family met Kosmenko, 26, in Edmonton this week. The striker is expected to make his decision next week. He can only sign a one-year entry deal before he is eligible for UFA status next summer, so the Oilers will get him on the cheap if he joins the squad. Heck, he could overtake Puljujarvi next season.
However, Holland and her comrades must exercise caution before letting Polijarvi go. Kuzmenko very well could sign elsewhere. Kane is by no means certain that she will be back. The lack of any of those players and Puljujarvi’s loss could put the Oilers in a big hole if at least one – and ideally two – replacements are not found. Trade requires assets. Free agency is expensive, and Oilers don’t have much money.
Eliminating the top nine forward positions with an expected cap of nearly $3 million is a risky business at any point in time but especially in this economy. If Puljujarvi takes the next step in his career and is not adequately replaced by Oilers, it will be a move the organization will likely regret for years.
(Photo: Kirby Lee/USA Today)