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Oilers’ task of resolving Puljujarvi dilemma will resume when hockey returns

EDMONTON — Ken Holland sat down for his first press conference as the Edmonton Oilers general manager on May 7, 2019. It was Jesse Puljujarvi’s 21st birthday.

Holland inherited the Puljujarvi file from deposed GM Peter Chiarelli, a No. 4 overall draft pick so poorly handled by an organization that knew nothing other than thrusting its 18-year-old saviours onto its National Hockey League roster. It was just one more mistake in a multi-year rebuild that landed Holland in Edmonton.

“There is always this pressure, internally and externally, to get young players on to NHL teams. It’s exciting. It’s somebody new,” the veteran GM told Sportsnet on Friday. “But for every success story, I can give you multiple stories where it wasn’t in the player’s best interest.”

After a stellar 2019-20 season in Finland’s Liiga, where he led first-place Oulun Karpat in scoring, Puljujarvi still captures Oilers fans.

Instead of spending his 18-year-old season back home in Finland — the way Oilers 2019 draft pick Philip Broberg is doing in Sweden now — Puljujarvi returned to Karpat only last fall, disgruntled, walking away from an Oilers organization from which he and agent Markus Lehto have stated they would prefer to divorce.

Enter Holland, who walked in the door moments after Puljujarvi had walked out. He barely knows the player, or has a relationship with Lehto, a relatively new agent.

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The Puljujarvi situation is not Holland’s fault, but it is his problem. And after a stellar season in Finland — scoring 24-29-53 in 56 games to rank fourth in Liiga scoring, fifth in goals — Karpat head coach Mikko Manner described a player who the Oilers likely won’t want to give up on.

“He played almost a perfect season,” Manner said on a podcast for Oulu newspaper Kaleva. “Jesse made the perfectly right decision when he decided to return to the familiar club, and got a big role (on the team).”

The quotes are translated on Google Translate, but they paint the picture of a coach who was quite happy with his player.

“This season certainly restored him with the joy of play, self-confidence and the feeling that he was important,” Manner said. “The next step is to develop the details and skills to strengthen his mental, tactical and technical footprint.

“If I could decide, he would still play next year in (the Liiga). I think it would be the right place for him to continue to develop.”

As he watched the lanky Puljujarvi cut through the Liiga competition through his computer screen in Palm Springs, Oilers advisor Ken Hitchcock wasn’t sure what he was seeing. “It was hard to judge because there’s just so much room, and he is so far ahead of people there,” he said.

But Hitchcock had Puljujarvi for the final 62 games of the 2018-19 season, when he took over the Oilers coaching reins from Todd McLellan. He championed Puljujarvi then, and still does today, sequestered inside his desert home.

“I know this about Puljujarvi, when I coached him I saw a young guy who could already play on the third line. Which is substantial for a guy who was 20 years old,” Hitchcock said. “Guys work one of two ways: Some come in with all the skill in the world, but they can’t adapt to the NHL as far as being a trusted player. They go from the second line, to the fourth line, to a healthy scratch, to whatever. But I saw Puljujarvi as a guy who, already at 20, was a third-line player. You could trust him. Whether he would become a guy who could play on the powerplay or play a Top 6 role? I can’t tell you how that will go.”

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Holland isn’t sure either, but when he looks at a six-foot-four, 201-pound right-winger with above average skating ability and an excellent shot, he knows one thing for sure: Holland would rather not watch the Jesse Puljujarvi experiment play out on someone else’s roster.

“Two years ago, his picture was on the cover of The Hockey News as being the prospect in hockey outside the NHL,” said Holland. “Certainly his stock has dropped, but when you’re 21 years old and you’ve gone back and accomplished what he’s accomplished this year, it’s hard not to believe that he’s still a pretty good prospect.

“What’s the calibre of play (in the Liiga)? I don’t know, but it’s still a professional league. Many of the players in that league are men — they’re 26, 27, 28 years of age. They’re pros. He’s 21,” he said. “As our industry gets back up and running, whenever that might be, certainly that is one of things that I need to sort out. Now is not the time.”

Holland had planned to attend a tournament in the Czech Republic that helps European teams settle on their rosters for the May World Championship, and then NHL GMs and scouts would converge on Switzerland to scout the Worlds. That tournament has not been called off yet, but it’s a good bet that it will be, which means that the viewings of Puljujarvi have likely ceased for the 2019-20 season.

If so, those games in the Liiga will have to do, and because of the competition, that will not help Puljujarvi’s trade value.

There is some irony that a GM who has inherited this problem now has his and others’ vision impaired by all the world is going through right now. Again, not Holland’s fault. Only his problem.

“Probably, this year has been very good for him. He’s probably got his confidence back,” Holland surmised. “He’s on the powerplay. He’s getting points, competing for the league scoring title. He played on his national team…

“This year, when you look back 10 years from now, I’d like to think it is going to be a really good year for him.

“Where does it go from here?” he asks. “We’ll find out.”

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