As we creep closer and closer to training camp with multiple high-end restricted free agents not yet signed and many of their teams in challenging situations trying match up what they have for salary cap remaining, not breaking their budget for their future and being pushed for fair value from star players, the Sebastian Aho offer sheet increasingly looks like a hockey blessing.
The Hurricanes do still have Roland McKeown, Saku Maenalanen and Justin Williams unsigned with Williams being the big question mark.
But with or without Justin Williams, the window is always open for a late August trade to try to further improve the team. On that front, one interesting name being bandied around right now is Jesse Puljujarvi. On NHL Network today, Elliotte Friedman named the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning as two possible destinations for Puljujarvi.
Jesse Puljujarvi’s history
Puljujarvi was part of a dominant Finnish line that included Patrik Laine and was centered by Sebastian Aho at the World Junior tournament during the 2015-16 season. That tournament propelled Laine and Puljujarvi up the draft rankings with Laine ultimately drafted second overall and Puljujarvi fourth in the 2016 NHL Draft. (Aho has a bit earlier birthday, so we was already drafted in 2015 with the Hurricanes scooping him up in the second round before he too caught attention.) Laine and Puljujarvi headed to the NHL with high expectations. Laine met those expectations instantly with 36 goals in his rookie season. Puljujarvi had some growing pains adjusting the NHL and ultimately headed to the AHL after a short not particularly productive stint in the NHL. Now three years into his professional career, Puljujarvi has yet to really gain his footing at the NHL level, seems disgruntled with the Oilers and could return to Finland rather than re-signing if the Oilers do not trade him. He is only 21 years old and an interesting case. Is Puljujarvi just a draft bust? Or is he a player whose was mishandled to the point of destroying his confidence such that he just needs a change of scenery? The answer to those questions make for a wildly different answer to what his value could be to the Hurricanes.
The case for bust
Puljujarvi has logged a decent amount of ice time on a team that despite its struggles has higher-end offensive talent but has yet to produce offensively. His meager 22 point pace per 82 games looks more like a fourth line grinder than a high pedigree young scorer. Further, the trend is not good. Rather than building from a low base, Puljujarvi has mostly flat-lined with only nine points in 46 games at the NHL level in 2018-19. And especially on a team with young offensive stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, one might argue that if he cannot produce offensively at the NHL level in Edmonton, he just will not produce anywhere. Finally, he had surgery on both hips at the end of the off-season which I guess could be interpreted as early injury problems for a young player or possibly a reason to think he has a higher gear. Players drafted as high as Puljujarvi always get a second and even third chance, but that does not mean that they will ultimately rebound. Rough math suggests that 15-20 percent of even top 5 draft picks end of being depth NHLers or less. So while a rebound is definitely possible for a 21-year old, suggesting that Puljujarvi will automatically rebound become what he was originally projected to be ignores history.
The case for a rebound
Jesse Puljujarvi is only 21 years old. Maybe more significantly, he is pretty clearly a player who lost his confidence along the way. The combination of youth and a change of scenery that offers a fresh start and potentially a boost in confidence is definitely a dice roll with decent chance of netting a turnaround. In doing research for this article, I happened upon a short scouting report from his 2016 draft year at Elite Prospects.
The short snippet reads:
Puljujärvi is a big winger who combines size, skating and skill. A strong skater who can blast past the opposition in full speed. 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. Great work ethic and positive attitude. More of a playmaker than a scorer and could improve his shooting skills, although already equipped with an accurate release. Doesn’t shy away from physical play, but could use his size more to his benefit. (EP 2016)
“Great work ethic and positive attitude” jump out as does mention of being “a smart player at both ends of the ice, both on and off the puck.” And he had an NHL skill set for the NHL.
As noted above, none of this is a guarantee, and the possibility of him just being a bust is a real one. But at 21 years old, the potential for a high ceiling as a scorer is also there especially if one considers the possibility that his current stage of (lack of) development is largely due to Edmonton’s mishandling of him.
In terms of just wiping the slate clean and trying to start with a fresh burst of positivity, the heavy Finnish contingent on the Hurricanes roster would figure to help.
Where he could fit considering also Justin Williams
Because the Hurricanes added a couple forwards this summer, some seem to think there is no room for another forward. I think that misses the actual math. Not counting Justin Williams, my count says that the Hurricanes have 11 certain NHL forwards (Aho, Teravainen, Niederreiter, Svechnikov, Staal, McGinn, Dzingel, Haula, Wallmark, Foegele, Martinook). Martin Necas who is waiver exempt is expected to compete for a roster spot but has to earn it. If Williams does not return, Puljujarvi would make 13 NHL forwards even if everyone is healthy. The team does have one too many at 14 forwards if Williams also returns, but that assumes that everyone is healthy to start the season. If that was the case, maybe Necas starts the season in Charlotte with the expectation that he returns to the NHL as soon as there is room.
If the Hurricanes did add Puljujarvi, many seem to want to jump to playing him with Aho and/or Teravainen. I think that ignores where is as a hockey player right now. The Hurricanes are fortunate to have a fourth-line center with decent offensive ability in Lucas Wallmark and a lineup that has decent balance down at the bottom. Rather, than immediately starting where he already failed trying to be a young NHL superstar, I think much better would be to just let him build a new base in a role without pressure to produce at some level. Then obviously if he gets his feet underneath him and plays well, he can climb the depth chart later.
So is this instead of Justin Williams?
The roster and salary cap math is easier if Puljujarvi is instead of Justin Williams, but I do not see them as being an either/or choice. Without much to show for his entry-level contract in terms of production, Puljujarvi would probably be looking at a one or two-year ‘show me’ contract still at or below $1 million per year. That pretty neatly swaps in for Clark Bishop or Brian Gibbons who currently show on the roster on CapFriendly without spending significantly more money. And as I said above, Necas could be the odd man out only short-term if the Hurricanes get through training camp with all forwards healthy. So if you add Puljujarvi at $900,000 and bump Gibbons, Bishop and Necas to the AHL, that still leaves $3.9 million to re-sign Williams also with the possibility to put some of that or even a bit more into bonuses that could be charged against the 2020-21 salary cap.
So while Williams’ situation is also in play, I first do not view Puljujarvi as a replacement for Williams in the top half of the lineup, and I do not view them as necessarily being an either/or choice financially.
What would the trade be?
Edmonton supposedly wants a comparable top prospect back for trading Puljujarvi. They can want all they want, but that does not mean they will get that. With Puljujarvi having already signed a contract to play in Finland, Edmonton has no leverage. Further, with his play through three seasons, Puljujarvi no longer qualifies as a top prospect. From a Hurricanes standpoint, I think the trade is a second-tier prospect possibly plus a mid-round draft pick. The Hurricanes could have numbers issues on the blue line not having room for all of Fleury, Forsling and McKeown who must clear waivers on the blue line not counting Bean who ideally sees NHL ice time too but is waivers exempt. Could something like McKeown plus a third-round draft pick be enough? If the Oilers instead want a forward, a question is how high the Hurricanes are on Julien Gauthier after making strides during the 2018-19 season. Gauthier’s story as more of a “slow rise” is significantly different than Puljujarvi’s “crash and burn upon entry,” but interestingly both players are 2016 first-round draft picks with physical skill sets that are NHL-capable who have yet to establish themselves in the NHL. Personally, I feel like Gauthier is a slight overpayment just because his trajectory is more positive right now and he is an unknown at the NHL level. But if the Hurricanes see Gauthier as a physically skilled forward who has a ways to go in rounding out his game, maybe that is a trade the team would make. Any talk of a first-round pick or a higher-end prospect like Bean, Necas, Suzuki, etc. from the Oilers side is just the typical case of fans greatly overvaluing a player who has very nearly zero value in an Oilers uniform at this point.
Would I do it?
In a word, yes. I actually am not that high on Puljujarvi. Players who are mature enough as a player to be drafted that highly can usually step in at the NHL level and produce offensively and more so have to round out other areas of their game. As such, I think the chance that Puljujarvi is just a bust is higher than most think. But that said, I do think the combination of a low cost, a high potential ceiling and a low cost makes him a good risk/reward play. McKeown plus a third gives up a player who I project as having a third pairing ceiling that they really do not have room for right now anyway. Further, McKeown has the potential to be lost for nothing on waivers. Then, even if the Canes have to upgrade to a second-round pick, the team has extra draft picks again next year. I do not like trading Gauthier as much just because I think his ceiling is as high as Puljujarvi’s in terms of raw physical skill set. But if the Hurricanes management and scouting staff’s read on Gauthier is that he is unlikely to reach that ceiling, I defer to them to rank Puljujarvi as a better dice roll.
If that type of deal becomes available, I do it. The risk is low and the upside high such that the risk/reward dice roll is worth it. I then slot Puljujarvi in a low-pressure role on Wallmark’s line and tell him to forget about the numbers and just focus on getting his game and confidence back. And this changes nothing with hoping Williams returns expect possibly trying to push a tiny bit more of his salary into the bonus category that could be deferred to 2020-21 if necessary. The only downside if the potential need to push Martin Necas to the AHL to start the year to make the roster math work.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Given his struggles in Edmonton, how highly would you value Puljujarvi, and what do you see as his chances for a rebound with a change of scenery?
2) Do you buy my roster and salary cap math that suggests that Puljujarvi and Williams are not an either/or choice?
3) To what degree would you be concerned about taking a roster spot that might be better spent on Martin Necas or another prospect already in the organization?
4) What would be your maximum offer for a trade package?