Prior to the firing of Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, Puljujarvi tallied just 29 points in 104 NHL games and was sent down to the AHL on three separate occasions. Could a change of scenery help the former fourth overall pick find his game and are the New York Rangers a potential destination?
Despite the slow start to his NHL career, the Finnish winger who grew up in Sweden still shows plenty of promise. At only 20 years old he has size, speed, and tremendous puck handling skills. According to Elite Prospects, his playing style is crafty and smart while impressing at both ends of the ice. Think Zuccarello, with Kreider’s size…
"“Puljujärvi is a big winger who combines size, skating and skill. He’s a strong skater who can blast past the opposition in full speed and is able to use his size, reach and stickhandling skills to retain the puck in speed. A smart player at both ends of the ice, both on and off the puck, he possesses a great work ethic and positive attitude. More of a playmaker than a scorer, he could improve his shooting skills, although he’s already equipped with an accurate release. He doesn’t shy away from physical play, but could use his size more to his benefit.”"
The reason Puljujarvi’s name has come up in recent trade banter is because of frustration mounting as he spends more time in the AHL than the NHL. Of the top ten players chosen in the 2016 NHL Draft, six have played in as many or more NHL games including the sixth, seventh, and ninth overall picks. With annual trips to the AHL, he has yet to play a full season in the NHL, but the recent hiring of head coach Ken Hitchcock could turn things around for him
One of Hitchcock’s first moves was to call up Puljujarvi immediately to give him minutes with the Oilers, overriding General Manager Peter Chiarelli’s decision to keep him with the minor league club. This could either be seen as a future hall-of-fame coach trying to light a fire under the talented winger, or put him on display to any rebuilding teams in the position to trade away NHL ready talent.
What’s clear is Chiarelli is fighting to keep his job by hiring the experienced Hitchcock, rather than a younger coach looking to develop the inexperienced players. Flipping Puljujarvi would come at the expense of a Ranger currently rostered, a player who could be helping the rebuilding Rangers contend for a playoff spot.
The Oilers are known for making questionable trades, whether it was sending away future MVP Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, or swapping Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome, or acquiring Griffin Reinhart for the 16th and 33rd overall picks, which the Islanders used to draft Mathew Barzal. Considering the lack of production so far from Puljujarvi, it’s tough to say what a fair trade would be. What isn’t tough to discuss is the fact that Jeff Gorton & co. should constantly be calling Chiarelli’s phone to test the waters on a possible swap.
Light on the wings.
While the Rangers might lack is a true #1 center, what can’t be argued is the number of prospects they have at center. Brett Howden, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson are all players that currently play down the middle or were drafted as such. As those players develop and take on responsibility, a playmaking winger like Puljujarvi could benefit greatly with increased ice time and decreased pressure to contribute.
The top three Rangers that have had their names dipped into every trade rumor are Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes. Zuccarello and Kreider are both top-6 wingers while Hayes is the lone center. It is important to note however that Chytil, a natural center, has been playing on Hayes’ wing (and gelling quite nicely). If any or all three of the aforementioned players leave, it causes an opening on the wing.
If Hayes leaves it could very well cause Chytil to move back to his comfort zone down the middle, leaving another opening on the outside.
Zuccarello and Kreider are staples on the wing and if one or both go, it not only forces players like Ryan Strome, Cody McLeod and Jesper Fast to take on an increased role, it depletes the bottom-6 and demands a call-up of a player who doesn’t have much NHL experience from AHL-affiliate Hartford Wolfpack.
Let’s say Zuccarello is not traded and stays with the team. The 31-year old currently makes $4.5 million and is headed to unrestricted free agency, where you could lose him for nothing. Puljujarvi isn’t a one-for-one replacement for Zucc, but it’s important to note that he is only 20-years old and headed to restricted free agency where he’ll cost substantially less than the Norwegian fan favorite.
Something the Rangers seem to be interested in lately is taking on reclamation projects. Defenseman Tony DeAngelo was a former first round pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning. After a lackluster stint with their AHL affiliate he was moved to Arizona, where he was essentially a throw-in during the blockbuster trade that sent veterans Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to the desert for the 2017 #7 overall pick (Lias Andersson).
He’s now played 52 games with New York and has been given all the opportunity he needs from David Quinn to prove he belongs with the team long term. With Puljujarvi’s mirrored slow start to his NHL career, could he follow the same path?
Ryan Strome is another example of Rangers brass taking a chance on unfulfilled potential. Taken 5th overall in the 2011 draft by rival New York Islanders, the Canadian forward has yet to top 50 points in a season. Once a very promising prospect, Strome was traded as a one-for-one to who else but the Oilers. After recording only 36 points in 100 games, Chiarelli decided he saw enough and the Rangers were there to snap him up.
If Oilers management believe they might have another Nail Yakupov situation on their hands, Rangers need to be there yet again in hopes of extracting the talent he was once projected to display.