Jesse Puljujarvi is starting to find his game at the pro level during his stay in the AHL, and he’s not the first top-10 pick to need some seasoning in the minors before attempting to make an impact in the NHL.
Jesse Puljujarvi’s stay in the NHL dragged on much longer than it should have. There’s not going to be many arguments about that. Drafted fourth overall by the Oilers, he came into the lineup, scored in his first game of the campaign, but was back watching from the press box by the Oilers’ fourth contest. He bounced in and out of the lineup into early January, and it wasn’t until Jan. 9 that Edmonton pulled the trigger and shipped him down to the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors.
The move has been good for Puljujarvi, too.
In his first game with the Condors, Puljujarvi netted an assist. The next game, he added another, followed by a third assist in his third game in the minors. He kept his point streak going with a goal in game No. 4 in the AHL, doubled his goal total with another tally in his fifth game with the Condors and now, 15 games into his tenure in the AHL, Puljujarvi has five goals and 11 points. He’s coming off of a three-game goal streak, and in a recent outing against the Ontario Reign, Puljujarvi set a season-best when he registered six shots on goal. It’s safe to say he’s starting to find his game at the pro level.
While Puljujarvi’s tough time in the NHL may have disappointed some, especially as Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine and Mitch Marner rip it up in their respective rookie seasons, that the 18-year-old is producing in the AHL is a good sign, and it could be the absolute best thing for his development. At his current pace, Puljujarvi is on pace to finish the season with a respectable 13 goals and 29 points in 39 games in the AHL. And if come next season the Oilers decide Puljujarvi could use a bit more time in the minors, at least they know it won’t hurt his confidence when it comes to his ability to produce.
There’s nothing wrong with spending some time in the AHL, either, as past top 10 picks have proven that sometimes a bit of seasoning in the minors can provide big returns. Here are five top-10 picks who have turned AHL development into success in the NHL:
5. Mikko Rantanen
Rantanen, like Puljujarvi, went straight from the draft to professional hockey. The difference, however, is that it didn’t take nearly as long for the Avalanche to make the decision to demote Rantanen, the 10th pick in 2015, in his rookie season. Six games into his stay with Colorado to start the 2015-16 campaign, he was sent down to the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage and the move paid off.
When he went to the minors, Rantanen was a force. In 52 games, he scored 24 goals and 60 points and finished second in scoring by a rookie despite the fact he took nearly two weeks off to head to the World Junior Championship and captain Finland to a gold medal. Altogether, only eight players of any position, age or status finished with more points than Rantanen.
Rantanen would have been a no-doubter to start the season in Colorado in 2016-17 if he hadn’t injured his ankle, but after a short four-game stint with the Rampage, he was back with the Avalanche. Now 48 games into his rookie campaign, he’s third on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 25 points.
4. William Nylander
There’s an argument to be made — and probably a good one — that Nylander’s stay in the AHL should have ended before this season. However, no one’s about to argue with the results, and the Toronto Marlies were sure glad to have the shifty Swede for close to 100 games over the past two full seasons.
Nylander was taken eighth overall by the Maple Leafs in 2014, and by the middle of 2014-15, he had been loaned to Marlies. Over the course of his first 37 games in the league, Nylander scored 14 goals and 32 points, and when he returned to Toronto for the start of the 2015-16 season, he took his scoring in the AHL to a new level. In 38 games, he registered 18 goals and 45 points. It was enough to earn Nylander a call up by the end of February, and he stuck with the Maple Leafs through to the end of the 2015-16 season.
Now, in his rookie NHL campaign, Nylander has pieced together a 14-goal, 36-point season and is on pace for a 20-goal, 50-point year. It took longer for him to become a full-time NHLer than most would have expected given his AHL production, but Toronto’s patience is paying off.
3. Logan Couture
The Sharks did some nifty maneuvering on draft day in 2007 to climb the draft and grab Couture, but just because they wanted him so badly didn’t mean they were about to rush his development. That’s why, across the 2009-10 season, San Jose had no issue sending him up and down, bouncing him between the NHL and AHL.
By the time the 2009-10 campaign ended, Couture had been recalled by San Jose and subsequently assigned to Worcester, which housed the Sharks’ AHL team, six times. The first recall came on Oct. 25, 2009 and the final time he was brought up was on March 18, 2010. It worked, though. In the AHL, Couture scored 20 goals and 53 points in 42 games, and by the time he became a full-time NHLer in 2010-11, he was ready to contribute.
Couture scored 32 goals and 56 points in his rookie season with the Sharks and he finished second in Calder Trophy voting, only narrowly defeated by Jeff Skinner. Only four players from the 2007 draft have scored more goals and the only players with a greater points per game are Patrick Kane and Jamie Benn.
2. Karl Alzner
Comparing a defensive defenseman to a potentially explosive winger like Puljujarvi isn’t easy, but it’s worth mentioning Alzner this high on the list because he was a fifth overall pick in 2007 who didn’t become a full-time NHLer until 2010. Once he did, though, Alzner became a staple of the Capitals’ back end and one of the most consistent players in the organization.
The road to Washington, however, went directly through Hershey, and Alzner’s time with the Bears wasn’t short. He first suited up in Hershey to start the 2008-09 season, and if you thought Couture’s up-and-down period with the Sharks was a lot, get a load of Alzner’s. From October 2009 to April 2010, Alzner was sent back and forth between the AHL and NHL 11 times. Seven of those came during the 2009-10 campaign, too.
By the time Alzner was finally a full-timer in the big league, he had played more than 100 games in the AHL, scoring four goals and 41 points along the way. But since the start of the 2010-11 campaign, Alzner hasn’t missed a single game in Washington, playing more than 500 games in a row. He’s one of the key cogs on the blueline for a team in position to really take a run at the Stanley Cup.
1. Bobby Ryan
Ryan was never going to get a fair shake in the seasons that immediately followed the draft because no matter how well he played, he wasn’t Sidney Crosby. It couldn’t have been easy going second overall in the 2006 draft behind arguably the best player of the modern era. And the scrutiny surrounding Ryan was even higher when, come the 2007-08 season, Ryan wasn’t able to crack the Ducks roster on a full-time basis.
Ryan started the 2007-08 season in Anaheim, but after four games he was back in the AHL. It would take more than two months for him to get back into the NHL, that stint ended in less than three weeks, and he wasn’t up again until there were only four weeks remaining in the season. The hope was he’d be a full-time NHLer to start the 2008-09 season, but that wasn’t the case to start the year. Instead, he played 14 games in the AHL before getting the call up.
He took off from there, though. Ryan scored 31 goals and 57 points in 64 games to finish second in Calder voting. The next season, he chipped in 35 goals and 64 points and proceeded to notch at least 31 goals in each of the next two seasons.
Ryan’s scoring ability made him the poster child for patient development through the AHL. Between the regular season and playoffs, Ryan played more than 100 games in the Ducks’ farm system, and it paid dividends. His first four full seasons saw him score 131 goals and 249 points in 309 games. Only nine players scored more goals during that four-year span.
While Ryan’s play has since dropped off, there’s no denying that his time in the AHL certainly didn’t hurt his development.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.