The Edmonton Oilers didn’t win the NHL Draft Lottery this year which still surprises me even after the actual draft, but they still got a big win on the first day of this year’s selections.
Toronto and Winnipeg stuck to the script by taking Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine with the first two picks, then the Columbus Blue Jackets stepped up to the podium, and with all cameras pointed on Jesse Puljujärvi’s face, the Blue Jackets announced a different name, Pierre-Luc Dubois’ name to be exact.
Dubois is a high end prospect and at centre (despite only playing half a year at the position) he does address a need, but Puljujärvi was meant to round out a locked in top three, but instead, the Edmonton Oilers get lucky and quickly picked up the Finnish teenager who was named MVP of the 2016 World Juniors.
Now, to me he should’ve gone third, maybe it’s the Finnish connection between him and Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen that made me think that there was no way they pass up on one of the two elite Finns in the draft, but they took Dubois and now Puljujärvi will hope to be the final piece to the puzzle to complete Edmonton’s never ending rebuild.
While he is coming back from a knee injury, he told reporters at the draft he expects to be in the NHL next year and I don’t blame him. He’s made 71 appearances in the Finnish elite league already at the age of 18, and yes that league isn’t at the same level as the NHL, he’ll be coming into the Oilers prospect pool with experiences that others don’t have, playing against men.
Puljujärvi has the advantage to crack the Oilers opening night roster.Embed from Getty Images
In 2014-15 he made 21 appearances for Karpat Oulu registering 11 points, then this past season he played a full year in the SM-Liiga with 28 points in 50 games for Karpat, good enough for sixth most on the team which was led by Carolina Hurricanes prospect Sebastian Aho with 45 points.
Puljujärvi has been on the radar since he cracked the Finnish line up for last-years World Juniors, but this year he really made his name relevant. On a line with Aho and Patrik Laine, they all dominated on Finland’s way to their second gold medal in three years. In just 7 games in the tournament, he had 17 points which is one of the best performances in recent memory. Only one player has done better since 2010 and that was Brayden Schenn for Team Canada as he put up 18 points.Embed from Getty Images
Between the three line mates, they put up a combined 44 points in 7 games, which shows why all three are high end prospects (and also makes you think Aho was a steal with the 35th pick in 2015). This year Puljujärvi really showed his dominance, his statistics talk for themselves. He dominates at the junior level (he also won an under 18 gold medal this year) and he’s steady against men.
If he makes the NHL this October, he’s not going to wow you straight away and probably won’t be in consideration for the Calder Memorial Trophy, what he will do is show his elite potential as a big bruising winger who plays a two-hundred-foot game.
His compatriot Laine is known for his shooting and goal scoring, Puljujärvi is a dominant playmaking winger who could end up being a big star playing alongside a centre like Connor McDavid. There was talk on the TV coverage I saw of the draft comparing Gretzky and Kurri to McDavid and Puljujärvi, while I don’t think they’ll be that good together, there’s no reason why he and McDavid can’t link up and dominant on a line together.
Puljujärvi isn’t going to come in as a top-six winger right away, he’ll probably sit on the third line for a year and maybe get some penalty killing time because he’s pretty good in his own end and then the Oilers can see how much he’s grown and maybe mix him into the top-six next year. The Oilers cannot rush this prospect because they can’t afford to have another Nail Yakupov on their hands. I’m a big fan of Yakupov but I think his time in Edmonton is done. He’s not a horrible player, but as a first overall pick he’s a bust.
Edmonton need to make smart decisions when free agency opens, a few of their guys need to be traded (like Yakupov) but if they can build a genuine team and get a genuine starting goaltender or at least somebody who can share the workload with Cam Talbot, the Oilers should start climbing the rankings again.
For me I think Puljujärvi makes the team next year and maybe plays alongside a guy like Leon Draisaitl and has a solid 30+ point rookie campaign, the value in him is there already to be an impact player straight away, his value in being a game winner is a few years away but there’s no reason why the Oilers can’t get him on the right track as soon as possible.
Puljujärvi (I know I have said his name a lot but that’s about to stop) was just one of the Oilers nine picks this year with two other Finns, one of which I’ll come to in a second.Embed from Getty Images
With the 32nd pick they picked up Tyler Benson of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, he was always going to be on the fringes of the first round but he’s a solid pick up. A native of Edmonton, Benson had a strong rookie year for Vancouver with 45 points in 62 games and had it not been injuries and surgery this year he would’ve easily beaten those numbers comfortably. He made 30 appearances with 28 points in a year that saw him undergo surgery to remove a cyst in his spine and also have an inflamed pubic bone which kept him out of the line-up. His draft stock plummeted as a result but when healthy this kid will be a solid and legitimate NHLer for years to come.
The third round is where the Oilers impressed me. Personally I think this kid should’ve been selected higher but in round three Edmonton got another Finn in Markus Niemeläinen. At 6’6” and 205lbs this guy is a beast of a blueliner who plays a very strong two-way game. The good thing about him is while he did play in the OHL last year he was actually on loan from Finnish side HIFK so the Oilers could send him to the AHL next year if they wanted to in a similar situation with Buffalo Sabres eighth overall pick Alex Nylander who played for Mississauga last year but was on loan from Sweden.
Niemeläinen might not be an NHL ready talent but I think he’s going to take a year or two at most to refine his skills and crack the Oilers lineup and slowly work his way into a top-four role and hopefully help a team that has been abysmal defensively for I don’t even know how long now.
Edmonton had two more third round picks where they took two more defensemen in Matthew Cairns and Filip Berglund who look okay, they might not be household names if they do make the Oilers but definitely will be solid in the AHL eventually.
In round five they took a goalie in Dylan Wells and left wing Graham McPhee then closed out the draft with Finnish centre Aapeli Räsänen in round six and defenseman Vincent Desharnais in round 7. All in all, it was a good draft for the Oilers, but obviously Puljujärvi is the stand out and the lucky pick for Edmonton. I’m not saying that Columbus will regret taking Dubois, but I think if they stuck to the script they’d be better off in the immediate future.
Now the Oilers just have to make sure they don’t mess it all up in the rest of the off-season.