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Jesse Puljujarvi returns to Oilers with second chance to make impact

EDMONTON — It was a hell of a distraction, as the hockey story in Edmonton became the signing of Jesse Puljujarvi instead of folks dwelling on a pair of wasted second-round draft picks. The ol’ bait and switch, hockey style.

In the end, however, Ken Holland simply never blinked on the Puljujarvi file, when the player took his talents to Finland in hopes of forcing a trade. Instead, Puljujarvi returns on a value two-year deal worth $2.35 million, with a team-friendly average annual value of $1.175 million.

So, on the day Oilers GM Ken Holland cut Andreas Athanasiou loose — after spending two second-rounders at the deadline to acquire him — he balanced the sheet by bringing a fan favourite back into the fold. Now, if he can actually land Jacob Markstrom as a free agent…

One year and a draft into his tenure at the Oilers helm, the only real blemish on Holland’s scorecard is the Athanasiou deal, and it does come with an asterisk. He acquired the player, and Athanasiou isn’t a great one, but COVID-19 limited the winger’s runway in Edmonton to just nine games before the pause and four more in the post-season.

Where no one in hockey would have questioned issuing Athanasiou a qualifying offer of $3 million when he was acquired, with the cap suddenly flat for who knows how long, clearly he isn’t a $3 million player in the new economy.

None of that is Holland’s fault. It is, however, his problem.

“I would like to have the picks,” he admits, “but my question is, have you done things in your life you would do differently? Probably.”

A wise old GM used to say, when you make a mistake, correct it quickly and move on. Don’t chase good money after bad, which would have been the case if Holland QO’ed Athanasiou.

“You grab all the information at the time, you make a decision, and I’m not looking back,” he said of the deadline acquisition. “I did it because we were trying to win, he had scored 30 goals (in 2018-19), I knew him and he had talent. I was hoping he would come in and give us a boost down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“He only played nine games for us then the pandemic hit. I was hoping he would play 20 games, play our way into the playoffs so he would have an impact on our team.”

So out goes the Greek alphabet and in comes the Finnish one, with the ceiling on Puljujarvi likely as high or higher than Athanasiou. He joins a roster of right-wingers that includes Kailer Yamamoto, Zack Kassian, Alex Chiasson, Josh Archibald and James Neal.

Yamamoto was a fixture on Draisaitl’s wing, which leaves a platoon for McDavid — which is precisely where fans in Edmonton will want to see the returning hero, Puljujarvi.

The reality is, that is the last place you’ll see Puljujarvi. At the start of the season, anyhow.

Holland’s pitch to the 22-year-old a year ago was, come to training camp, we’ll put you next to a responsible, professional centreman on the third line, and we’ll play you there every night while you learn the NHL game. Very few players turn into stars before they get their sea legs in the National Hockey League, and that is exactly where Puljujarvi stands today.

Puljujarvi went over to Finland where he was a quasi-scoring machine, with 25 goals in 58 games for Oulu Karpat. It was a year of Twitter highlights, with Puljujarvi blasting pucks past helpless looking goalies from all over the rink.

A wicked wrist shot wasn’t the reason Puljujarvi failed in his first attempt in Edmonton, however. He couldn’t succeed in Edmonton the first time because he did not have a clue how to play without the puck. His linemates had no idea where he was going to be, and because he hadn’t worked hard enough at his English skills, half the time he had no idea what they were saying.

Puljurvavi looks great when he’s rushing the puck, or rifling that wrist shot of his. It’s the other 30 seconds of his shift that he has to learn what to do and where to go.

That he signed a two-year deal for less than $2.4 million is a win for both sides. We’d bet there is a handshake deal that if Puljujarvi does not find a way to mesh with this organization in Year 1, he’ll be dealt away in Year 2. And with that low price tag it will be easy for Holland to find someone willing to take on the project.

If he clicks and produces the way a No. 4 overall draft pick is supposed to, then it’s a true value contract for Edmonton.

What do we think will happen?

I would say that the year abroad and the opportunity waiting here in Edmonton makes it likely that Puljujarvi can re-write his life story as an Oiler. He has so many tools, and the Oilers have two elite centres, it seems unfathomable that a swift skating, six-foot-four winger with an excellent shot can’t find a way as an Oiler.

It’s Jesse time: Take 2.

Let the hype machine begin.

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