By Panu Markkanen
Let me give you five attributes of a Finnish hockey player and you let me know, who I’m thinking about: 1) He is big. 2) He shoots from the right. 3) He loves scoring goals. 4) He smiles always. 5) He has not retired from the NHL.
The fifth attribute was mandatory, otherwise everyone would have said: “Teemu Selanne”. No. We are talking about the next Finnish goal-scoring machine. A guy from the North: 16-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi. The youngest member of Team Finland’s squad in the World Juniors and definitely the hottest prospect Finland – and perhaps all of Europe – has to offer in the 2016 draft.
Puljujarvi has already dominated U18 and U20 junior leagues in Finland. This season he made his debut in Finnish’s SM-Liiga and scored his first professional goal in his third game. His club, Oulun Karpat, is the reigning champion and a hot candidate to win back-to-back titles, which has occasionally led to Puljujarvi’s demotion to Finland’s Mestis, the second level league, where he has scored a point per game this fall.
“Games in Liiga have been pretty good for me,” Puljujarvi told The Hockey News. “The main reason for my time in Mestis is purely to get the possibility to play with men and get a lot of time on the ice. It’s only been a good thing. I’ve been able to measure myself.”
Finland has not traditionally been the leading country in producing the best goal scorers. Unselfishness has always been a virtue in the Finnish game. Puljujarvi is in this way an eagerly awaited exception in this dark country of fourth-line-forwards.
He has an excellent shot and he handles the puck well. He is 6´3” and his hunger for goals seems endless.
“Perhaps it comes from the times when I played in my home town Tornio,” Puljujarvi said. “At that time I could do almost everything on the ice and I scored then a lot. Scoring is absolutely the best thing in hockey. Of course there are also a lot other things I try to do on the ice, but I always try to score. I still wouldn’t call it an obsession or something like that…”
And of course he mentioned a certain ex-player who is 28 years his senior.
“Of course Teemu has been an idol for me. It was great to see him scoring in his later years. It proved how tough a guy he is,” Puljujarvi said.
Five Finnish players have played in U20 World Championships at 16 before Puljujarvi, and the list is convincing: Reijo Ruotsalainen (2 Stanley Cups), Janne Niinimaa (741 regular season games in NHL), Mikael Granlund (Minnesota), Olli Maatta (Pittsburgh) and Aleksander Barkov (Florida).
“Picking him is pretty obvious for me,” says Finnish coach Hannu Jortikka, who has coached U20’s in four different decades. “I’ve rarely seen any kid so sound-minded as Jesse.”
And Puljujarvi is ready for the challenge of being the next in a short list of 16-year-old Finns to take on the world’s brightest junior stars.
“This is a big thing for me to get to show, what I can do already in this age. Definitely biggest and greatest thing for me so far. And the venues are not the smallest villages either,” Puljujarvi says.
Finally, about that smile. Where does it come from?
“I just like to smile. I feel like laughing all the time.”
Smiling and laughter spread joy and happiness around. Teemu Selanne did it with his smile and scoring touch. Jesse Puljujarvi will definitely make at least one person to smile in the near future: The GM who gets to draft him in 2016.
Panu Markkanen is sports journalist from Finland. He has been covering Finnish and international hockey since 2002. He’s currently a reporter for the Finnish TV-channel Nelonen Pro and as a columnist for a Finnish hockey portal SuomiKiekko.com