Edmonton Oilers

Exploring potential trades for Jesse Puljujarvi’s eventual departure from the Edmonton Oilers

Since being drafted fourth overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2017 NHL entry draft, there has been a level of uncertainty surrounding Jesse Puljujarvi’s standing with the Oilers. From double hip surgeries, to trade requests, to time back in Finland, and even to now on a one-year deal, it has been a tumultuous tenure despite moments of strong play. Yes, within the Oilers day-to-day discourse there has been a near constant presence of negativity and doubt, but nearing the 2023 trade deadline it seems more likely than ever that Puljujarvi will soon be dealt.

Is Puljujarvi’s time with the Oilers reaching it’s endpoint?

There have been reports of struggles in confidence over the years, including recently with a number of Finnish ex-NHLers commenting how a change of scenery is the first step to an improved Puljujarvi. There is no doubt that Puljujarvi has looked capable of more than he has delivered at the NHL level, just as there is no doubt he has been a contributor already. Despite years of strong play for the Oilers, especially from a defensive standpoint, it is difficult to imagine that a change of scenery isn’t best for Puljujarvi at this point. More and more fans of both the Oilers and Puljujarvi have come to share this opinion. Just as the Oilers’ own Klim Kostin, a former first-round pick himself, needed a change of scenery to break out of his stagnated development, so too might Puljujarvi.

A Puljujarvi trade seems to be a theoretical positive for the player, and it does afford the Oilers some interesting options at this season’s trade deadline. Though Puljujarvi’s contributions, and potential, as a player will be missed, the concept of using his cap space elsewhere provides the Oilers a great deal of flexibility in their otherwise skintight cap situation. While Puljujarvi certainly holds value in his own right, the $3M price tag coming off the books has value in its own right as well. Combined with the Oilers draft capital, the possibility of adding a player or two of significance becomes much more plausible, considering the Oilers might be able to afford a player with some cap hit retained by their old team.

Let’s take a look at some of the options that might be available to the Oilers should they move Puljujarvi.

Another goaltender isn’t what the team needs right now

While there are certainly goalies around the league who are better, including rumours that Juuse Saros of the Nashville Predators might be available, it is unlikely that the Oilers do anything in net with Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner. Both will have their ups and downs, but we should expect to see a fairly even split of starts down the stretch. As a tandem they give a high level of play at a value rate, providing the team in front of them play up to a reasonable semblance of their defensive potential, as the Oilers have been of late.

The blueline requires improvement

Part of the improved team defence is the play of the blueline itself. All three pairs, as well as the important situationally defensive seventh option as a right side penalty killer, are hitting their strides.

Starting on the left side, with Darnell Nurse’s playing better of late, returning closer to top form from a summer of training missed due to a torn hip flexor. There had been some tough moments early in the season, but these are less frequent recently. Nurse is still playing huge minutes, and is the Oilers’ best option on the blueline. Cody Ceci isn’t the best right-handed defenceman in the league, but he’s meshed extremely well with Nurse as the pair have a lot of chemistry.

Similarly, Brett Kulak gets a lot out of his pairing with Tyson Barrie. The two complement each other well, and represent a competent second pair, but a fantastic third pair. Barrie is still the top power play option, while Kulak is a key penalty killer behind Nurse.

Luckily the Oilers third pair of Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard have started to come into their own. Still firmly playing third pair minutes, the young duo have been dominating. For both the long- and short-term health of the Oilers, this is the single biggest development of the season. The fact that both are earning trust without the help of a veteran partner is outstanding news, though it won’t be an overnight process. To this point the pair has passed every test in the past month or so, and might well start to push both other pairs for minutes. Sure, their inexperience may be concerning for some, but as a third pair this duo is a risk the Oilers can and need to afford themselves.

Vincent Desharnais has been fantastic as the situational defensive option on the right side. With Barrie and Bouchard on the right, a seventh defender gives the Oilers some much needed flexibility with late leads and on the penalty kill. Both are areas that the Oilers struggled with early in the season, but seemed to have stabilised in January. There is a correlation here as Desharnais has more than delivered in these areas. Though Ryan Murray and Markus Niemelainen offered some defensive utility, both are left shots, Desharnais is a right shot and has arguably outperformed the two this season.

Naturally depth is an issue as injuries will happen, but should the Oilers look to push anyone out of their spots outright? Though possible, it doesn’t seem critically necessary to push either Kulak or Broberg out. Perhaps a bigger option like Jakob Chychrun, Mattias Ekholm, or Vladislav Gavrikov would push one of the two to the press box, as both are firmly better than Kulak and, for now, Broberg. At this point trading Broberg would be irresponsible, and trading a hometown player who recently signed in Kulak might be cutthroat. It might be more likely we see a depth option acquired behind them, though Niemelainen is serviceable to a degree, and Murray is injured. Theoretically either could fill in during the attrition of a deep playoff run, but neither provide an abundance of confidence. Would a player like Nikko Mikkola or Joel Edmundson push Broberg from the lineup as a rental? Is it affordable to acquire them to be a healthy scratch when all is well?

On the right Ceci, Barrie, and Bouchard all have strong value despite their share of shortcomings. It is quite unlikely any get traded or moved from the lineup. Quite frankly all have played what might be the best hockey of their Oilers over the past few years, as is Desharnais. This seventh spot is crucial for the Oilers, and is worth investing in to an extent. Acquiring an offensive option has been suggested, such as Matt Dumba or Shayne Gostisbehere, but does not seem to make sense given the construction of the Oilers’ roster.

Might Desharnais be pushed further down the lineup with the acquisition of Luke Schenn, Troy Stecher, Radko Gudas, Jake McCabe, or Connor Murphy? Might Ceci be pushed out by McCabe or Murphy? While some Oiler fans will have visions of using Ceci or Barrie in a package for an even better right shot in the name of cap management, it’s extremely unlikely the Oilers will be looking to offload such a critical position in the lineup now that they are playing at the level of a perennial contender.

GM Ken Holland might get some criticism for being “old school” in some ways, but this is a modern, skilled, and attacking blueline group. It is more likely that Holland adds players that are more defensive or physical to even things out. A depth piece at a low price might be the most prudent play, while adding Chychrun remains the best option in the short term. Likely Kulak would be moved out in such a case, as would Puljujarvi, a first, and a prospect like Xavier Bourgault or Reid Schaefer, if not Dylan Holloway.

Forward depth could be another option

Naturally things up front start with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. In a league and a sport where chaos and randomness rule, both defy the odds and routinely outperform their already gaudy expectations. A trio of $5M forwards are filling in behind, with Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins playing the best hockey of their careers, and Evander Kane now back from injury. Together, these five forwards ensure the Oilers top six are among the best in the league.

However, take away even one of those five forwards and the Oilers are a significantly weaker unit. We’ve seen this early on in the season, and last season, before Kane was added, that the scoring depth falls off a great deal. The entire complexion of the team changes minus any one of these players, so adding a goal scorer might be a need worth exploring. The Oilers might have some internal candidates, be it Holloway or perhaps even Raphael Lavoie, who has come on recently in the AHL, but resting championship hopes on those two might be too big an ask.

Acquiring another scoring forward, perhaps Timo Meier of the San Jose Sharks would change things in a hurry. Though whether or not the Oilers could re-sign the player long term is another question altogether, but based on the market set for Bo Horvat, a first-round pick and Puljujarvi is a substantial start to building a trade package for Meier. The Oilers would need to pay a bit extra for salary retention, and Meier will be sought after, but his acquisition would signal the end of any questions about the Oilers scoring depth. Other scoring options like James van Riemsdyk might fill a similar role at a lower price point.

Acquiring a big name centre might be an aggressive option, with Ryan O’Reilly and Jonathan Toews rumoured to be on the market. Both would undoubtedly upgrade the roster, but the Oilers would have to ship out more than Puljujarvi’s $3M cap hit to afford either at 50% retained. Perhaps adding in Warren Foegele and a first-round pick would be enough to add either captain.

Though Puljujarvi is one of the team’s better even strength defensive forwards, the Oilers do have some useful players in this regard. The bottom six is wrought with defensive centres, Ryan McLeod, Derek Ryan, even Devin Shore and Ryan Malone as depth. Mattias Janmark has become a key penalty killer. Foegele and Kostin have been useful power forwards. Yamamoto brings tenacity, rounding out a group that has a lot of versatility even without Puljujarvi.

While there’s been some talk of acquiring another defensive forward for depth this would hardly constitute a huge transaction. Noel Acciari might bring in a similar style and effectiveness to Janmark or Foegele. Both Nick Bjugstad and Ivan Barbashev are intriguing options, with centre versatility and perhaps more offence than Puljujarvi has provided this season, at a fraction of the cost.

It would be best for Puljujarvi and the Oilers to part ways

While smaller adds discussed—Bjugstad, Barbashev, Schenn, Stecher, or Mikkola, would upgrade the lineup—the fact that Puljujarvi is in play might suggest a bigger deal in the works. Perhaps negotiations with the Arizona Coyotes (Chychrun, Bjugstad, Stecher), Chicago Blackhawks (Toews, Murphy, McCabe), or St. Louis Blues (O’Rielly, Mikkola, Barbashev, Acciari) could provide some one stop shopping in which Puljujarvi might be an asset.

Without any glaring weaknesses, the best move is likely to swing for the fences on a player of significance. Toews and O’Reilly might be a bit ambitious, but along with Meier they are high end rentals that might solidify the Oilers as favourites in the Western Conference. Chychrun remains the point of intrigue, signed to another two seasons beyond this, although having to include Kulak is a sticking point, even before considering that the Coyotes will likely be looking for a first round pick and a top prospect (Dylan Holloway).

Regardless, as much as Puljujarvi is a good piece for the Oilers, fans of the player have to admit that the best move for Puljujarvi might be a fresh start. Fans of the Oilers should feel encouraged as well, as his being available gives the Oilers the assets and cap space to make a big splash at the deadline this season.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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