The New Jersey Devils have a big offseason ahead of them. Goalkeepers have sunk their 2021-22 season, making it the No.1 priority, but general manager Tom Fitzgerald also has other needs to take care of. At his end-of-season press conference in early May, he talked about wanting to add something different up front. Most Devils forwards excel at running, so it’s not hard to see what Fitzgerald means. He wants someone who stops and creates havoc in and around the net.
There are a few free agents that fit what Fitzgerald is looking for, but there may also be some available through a trade. One name that might be of interest is Edmonton Oilers winger Jesse Puljujärvi, who happens to be a restricted free agent this summer. Yesterday on TSN radioRyan Rishaug said that while he’s not sure, it’s possible Puljujärvi played his last game as an Oiler (around 6:30).
Puljujärvi finished the 2021-22 season with 14 goals and 36 points in 65 games – a pace of 18 goals and 45 points in 82 games. He may not be the top scorer the Devils need, but he would still be an ideal candidate for what Fitzgerald is looking for up front while giving the Devils maximum flexibility to pursue another top scorer.
Puljujärvi’s play since returning from Finland
Puljujärvi is a former Oilers top-five pick (4th overall in 2016), but his NHL career didn’t get off to a good start. From 2016 to 2019, he totaled just 37 points in his first 139 games, averaging 22 points in 82 games. With his entry-level contract expiring after the 2018-19 season, he decided to return to his native Finland and play for Kärpät in the Liiga, Finland’s top professional league.
In his first season in the Liiga, Puljujärvi scored 24 goals and 53 points in 59 games, making him one of the league’s top scorers. Due to the pandemic, he would start the 2020-21 season with Kärpät, where he would total five goals and 12 points in 16 games before returning to the Oilers in January before the start of NHL season shortened by COVID.
Puljujärvi’s stay in Finland seems to have paid off for his development. In 2020-21 with the Oilers, he finished with 15 goals and 25 points in 55 games – a pace of 22 goals and 37 points in 82 games. The counting totals might not sound impressive, but its underlying metrics were pretty good. He finished the year with a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 52.92% and an expected goal percentage (xG%) of 56.14%.
It’s clear that Puljujärvi improved a season ago, and he kept that momentum going into the 2021-22 season. While count totals still lagged, especially for someone who played a lot with Connor McDavid, Puljujärvi finished with a 58.58 CF% and 59.78 xG%, both ranked first on the Oilers. . Although he should score more than he is, he is arguably the Oilers’ best playmaker after McDavid and Leon Draisaitl:
When you think of a game pilot, you probably think of someone with elite skills like McDavid or, in the Devils’ case, Jack Hughes, but it’s not Puljujärvi. What makes him such a good playmaker is his ability to forecheck and recover the puck to create scoring opportunities and open up space for his teammates. He’s also not afraid to enter high-risk areas. In fact, that’s where he makes his living, as he ranks third in high-risk chances on the Oilers since the start of 2020-21, with only McDavid and Kailer Yamamoto tallying more.
So why doesn’t Puljujärvi score more often than him? The area he needs to significantly improve is his shooting. He finished the 2021-22 season shooting 8.8% at all strength and is just a career-high 9.1% shooter. For someone who creates many high-risk chances, Puljujärvi has to convert them more often than him.
Related: Devils Could Use Bruce Cassidy Behind The Bench
If the Devils were to acquire him, he would likely play alongside Hughes. And if not Hughes, it would be Nico Hischier. If either is your primary center, you need to convert the chances they create and at least be a consistent 25 goal scorer. Fortunately, he recently turned 24 and improving a player’s shot is still correctable for someone his age. If the Devils think they can improve his shot, he’s on their roster because of what he would add offensively to the forecheck.
Commercial value of Puljujärvi
It is difficult to find a comparable profession for someone like Puljujärvi, given his situation and his time in Finland. The New York Rangers got a 2022 second-round pick and Sammy Blais in exchange for Pavel Buchnevich last summer. As Prashanth Iyer pointed out on Twitter, the Sam Bennett trade, in which the Calgary Flames acquired second-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman, might also be comparable.
Although Puljujärvi is a former top-five pick, he no longer has value in the first round. And while it may have strong underlying metrics, counting totals still determines business value. If the Devils give up a draft pick for him, it would likely be their second round in the 2022 draft, which sits 37th overall.
After that, things get a little interesting since the Oilers only have $7.13 million in cap space to work with this offseason. According to Rishaug, it looks like they prioritized re-signing Yamamoto, their other notable RFA. They also likely want to re-sign Evander Kane, who performed well after signing with the Oilers midway through the season despite off-ice issues. Add to that all the changes GM Ken Holland wants to make in net and defense, and money gets tighter than it already is.
If the Oilers trade Puljujärvi, they won’t be able to make much money due to their cap situation. It would likely be a forward deal, which the Devils should be able to complete as they have a relatively large prospect pool. Could the Devils’ 2022 second-round pick and a prospect like Kevin Bahl do the job? It’s close to Bennett’s return. Other prospects who could be part of a package instead of Bahl are Nolan Foote, Fabian Zetterlund and Shakir Mukhamadullin.
While the Oilers can’t take a lot of money, one scenario that could happen is the Devils giving up their 2022 second-round pick and Andreas Johnsson. If they keep 50% on the final year of Johnsson’s contract, that would bring his cap down to $1.7 million, which the Oilers may be able to squeeze in for 2022-23. Still, that’s probably unlikely given what else Holland might want to do to improve an Oilers team that just made the Western Conference Finals. So if they trade Puljujärvi, it would probably be a good bet that it’s a futures-based deal.
What does a Puljujärvi extension look like?
Finally, the Devils are expected to sign Puljujärvi to a new contract as he is an RFA. Per Evolving-Hockey, he plans to land a six-year contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.995 million if he signs with a different team. Since he struggled to score at a high level, I don’t think the Devils would be willing to go to six, but there are other paths that make sense.
Related: Devils’ 3 Free Agents Target This Offseason
Puljujärvi’s signing to a four-year deal comes with an expected AAV of $4.4 million, which would make him UFA-eligible in 2026 and eat up a year of UFA eligibility. It’s also possible the Devils could opt for a two-year bridge deal, which comes with a projected AAV of $3.446 million. This would take him to the 2024 offseason when he would be FRG again. If he breaks out during this period, the Devils could then opt for a long-term contract. But given some of his metrics, it might be wise to stay four years and bet improving his shooting will help him break out. Because if it happens during a two-year transition contract, his next contract could be quite expensive in 2024.
All in all, there is a fit for Puljujärvi on the Devils. He’s a great forechecker and isn’t afraid to get into high-risk endzones. Even with a weak shot, he has averaged 20 goals in 82 games over the past two seasons. If the Devils can help him improve his shooting ability, there are real benefits to his game, given his style of play. this offseason while giving him the opportunity to add another marquee scorer.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015 to 2017.