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Oilers’ Puljujarvi could benefit from AHL stint after season-low ice time

Jesse Puljujarvi barely saw the ice in Thursday’s game against the Boston Bruins, skating a mere 3:27 on six shifts, and at this point it’d be hard to argue against some playing time in the AHL for the 18-year-old rookie.

Oilers rookie Jesse Puljujarvi had the best seats in the house for Edmonton’s 4-3 victory over the Boston Bruins, because he was planted on the bench, watching the action, for all but 3:27 during Thursday night’s tilt.

Puljujarvi’s sub-four minute evening marked the second time this season his ice time has been so low, but unlike the first time he saw the ice for less than four minutes, Puljujarvi was healthy for the entire outing, simply watching as a coach’s decision. On top of that, his six-shift night against the Bruins came just five games and two weeks removed from him setting his season-low mark with only 6:36 of playing time against the abysmal Arizona Coyotes.

It’s been a tough rookie season for Puljujarvi in terms of finding his fit in the Oilers lineup. Through 40 games, he has suited up in just 28. He has been a healthy scratch 10 times, sidelined another two with undisclosed ailments and have averaged a mere 11:15 of ice time in the games he has seen. He scored in his NHL debut on Oct. 12, but hasn’t scored since, and his last point came nearly a month ago when he picked up an assist in 7:51 of ice time against the Philadelphia Flyers.

And given the way things have gone for Puljujarvi, it’s hard to understand why the Oilers have yet to send the 18-year-old, AHL-eligible winger down to get some time with the Bakersfield Condors.

During a stretch in which Puljujarvi had sat out five of seven games, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli was asked about Puljujarvi and when he might get back into the lineup. Chiarelli said that while the team was confident in Puljujarvi’s ability — “Every time he’s played, he’s made three or four plays,” Chiarelli said — there were issues with consistency, which has been pretty clear if you judge by the fluctuations in Puljujarvi’s ice time handed out by coach Todd McLellan.

The kicker, though, is that Chiarelli admitted it wasn’t the plan, necessarily, to have Puljujarvi sitting out just about every second game. In fact, speaking about that very subject, Chiarelli said the situation was “not ideal” for a player Puljujarvi’s age before adding that he “may see some time” in the AHL.

Those comments came on Dec. 13. In the eight games since, Puljujarvi has been scratched three times, averaged less than 8:30 of ice time and the only time he’s shown up on the stat sheet is when he picked up a minor penalty for holding in a Jan. 3 game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. So, again, it’s hard to fathom why Puljujarvi continues to adjust to the big league game by sitting on the bench and in the press box.

At the time Chiarelli first mentioned a possible AHL stint for Puljujarvi, one of the reasons given for keeping him in the NHL was that he was still trying to get used to North America. One comparison Chiarelli, the former GM of the Boston Bruins, offered was between Puljujarvi and David Pastrnak. The difference between the two players is that coming into the pro game as an 18-year-old, Pastrnak understood english “very well,” while Puljujarvi is still working on his grasp on the language.

Even still, that seems a tough reason to keep Puljujarvi in the NHL, some nights skating minutes even a fourth-line pugilist might scoff at. And if communication really is a worry, it’s not as if Puljujarvi would even be the lone Finn down on the Oilers’ farm, as winger Jere Sallinen has spent the entire campaign down with the Condors.

And language barrier or not, stints in the AHL have helped dozens players in the past. Pastrnak, for example, spent nearly half of his first North American campaign with the Providence Bruins. Every single one of the Lightning’s ‘Triplets’ trio had their time in the minors. Bobby Ryan is a notable example, too, of a player with big scoring potential first finding their game in the minors. And there’s any number of Red Wings, both past and present, who’ve gone through the developmental system, including current rookie standout Anthony Mantha.

Bakersfield is where Puljujarvi should be right now. He’s a valuable asset who could benefit from getting his confidence back in the AHL, and he’s shown at every other level of play that’s he’s far too skilled to be sitting on the bench for nearly an entire game. 

With the Condors, Puljujarvi could begin to get more comfortable with the style of play, skating increased minutes and operating on the power play. He could learn from more senior players, some of whom have seen time with the big club, and he can start to build chemistry with some of the faces who may become familiar to the Oilers’ lineup in the next two or three years. 

There’s more positives than negatives to sending Puljujarvi to the Condors, and it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see the Oilers make that move soon.

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