Before the hockey world outside of Scottsdale, Arizona knew the name Auston Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi was being discussed as a future top pick in the NHL Entry Draft. The young Finnish winger became known on the international scene after a dominating performance at the U17 tournament two years ago and was thought to be the best 2016 eligible prospect until Matthews burst onto the scene. Now sitting as the consensus number three prospect in this year’s draft, Puljujarvi represents the second player in a Finn vs Finn debate that should probably be a lot closer than appears to be the case recently.
Going into the season, Puljujarvi was seen by just about every scout as the second best forward in the 2016 draft class, but as of late his countryman and World Junior linemate Patrik Laine has surpassed him on every rankings list save for ISS. It’s convenient to compare the two since they are both big, strong, Finnish wingers but the fact remains that they are very different players. Puljujarvi is a smart, cerebral player, whereas Laine’s more flashy offensive highlights could be what is tilting the scales in his favor with many draft onlookers.
What He’s Good At
Puljujarvi is a player that you have a hard time pinpointing adjectives for because he excels at so many facets of the game. I hate to describe him this way, but he’s a ‘hockey player’. Puljujarvi has the mind to complement his elite talent, which is something that is incredibly rare when you’re talking about a 17-year old.
1. Speed. Puljujarvi plays the game at a speed that is essential to be an elite player at the NHL level. He has a strong, effortless skating stride that allows him to take advantage of an opponent and win just about any race to the puck.
2. Puck Skills. As Leaf fans have been taught by Michael Grabner this season, speed means nothing if your hands can’t keep up. Puljujarvi has the elite puck handling skills to go along with his high-end skating speed that allows him to make the kind of plays many can’t. His long reach and skilled stick handling make Puljujarvi incredibly dangerous on the rush.
3. Instincts/Reflexes. Whether he is creating the play with the puck on his stick or finishing off a teammate’s setup, Puljujarvi has the reflexes and reactionary timing that allows him to take full advantage of his speed. He’s the kind of player that is often described as ‘putting himself in the position to score’. Puljujarvi does not have the elite shot of Laine, but he is able to score in large part to being able to read the play and react to whatever is given to him.
— ПБХ (@PBHocky) April 7, 2016
Room For Growth
Described as a ‘complete player’, Puljujarvi is far from a polished product. As expected from any 17-year old there is room for his game to develop, but luckily for him, many of those areas are ones that often come with age and maturity. The major knock on Puljujarvi has been his consistency. On the biggest stage, he comes to play. With his MVP performance in the World Juniors and the way he is currently in the Liiga playoffs, Puljujarvi is showing that when it matters he will be at his best. On the flip side, it’s been said that he has a hard time maintaining that level throughout the year. Of course this same criticism has been said about just about every young player at one time of another.
Aside from consistency, the biggest negatives to Puljujarvi’s game seem to be strength related. He doesn’t have the hardest shot in the world, and he doesn’t properly use his size to fend off opponents but again he’s 17. A couple of years or physical maturation and neither of these things should be a problem.
It’s an encouraging sign that he appears to be very aware of the faults I his game. When asked about his season during his first ever interview in English on Monday Puljujarvi responded “I play well but not all season, I (can) maybe be stronger and it’s hurting my defensive game and my shot”
By The Numbers
As with his profile of Patrik Laine yesterday, our own Jon Steitzer went through the painstaking process wading through Finnish fancy-stats to pull some great analysis of Puljujarvi’s play for Karpat this season:
What Others Are Saying
“Puljujarvi is a smart and elusive player who possesses some very good hands. There is no stopping this kid once he gets moving; a big, powerful skater possesses the speed and puck skills that will make NHL teams drool. Playmaking and finishing ability is elite – he knows when to pass it off with a hard pass on the tape and he knows when he has the time and space to drive the net or take a shot”
“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. Doesn’t shy away from physical play, but could use his size more to his benefit.”
What’s The Difference Between the Two Finns?
It’s inevitable, from now until their careers end Puljujarvi and Laine are going to be compared and judged against one another, whether it makes sense to do so or not. They are both big, Finnish wingers that will bring a strong offensive game to the teams that draft them, but that’s probably where the similarities end.
Bob McKenzie put the play of the two Finns into perspective in his Mid-Season Draft Rankings:
One scout offered an interesting comparison, using Teemu Selanne and Jari Kurri. The scout wasn’t comparing Laine to Selanne or Puljujarvi to Kurri, but was he was comparing the difference between this year’s generational Finns to the difference between yesteryear’s Finnish superstars.
“Laine is flashier; Puljujarvi is more complete,” the scout said. “They’re both great players; they’re both going to get their goals, though they may go about it a little differently.”
Selanne vs Kurri, Ovechkin vs Malkin, Marner vs Barzal, all examples of comparing flash vs the more complete playing style. Laine and Puljujarvi are bound to be compared to each other by any team drafting second this year and it may just come down to which style of player that team’s management prefers.
A lot has been made recently of the effect the birth date has on the development of NHL draft picks. The idea that guys with late birthdates (after the September 15th draft cup off) gain a boost in their draft year production, is one that has been discussed and studied over the past couple of years. Puljujarvi is not one of those guys. Born May 7, 1998, Puljujarvi is the youngest of the big three prospects and is nearly a full seven months younger than Auston Matthews. Seven months doesn’t make a huge difference in the grand scheme of life, but when you’re talking about the development of 17 and 18-year-old hockey players, it could be a big difference when trying to project future potential. The fact that he will finish his second season of hockey in a professional men’s league before his 18th birthday is something to be considered when scouts are taking a look at his play and production.
Does He Make Sense For The Leafs?
No he doesn’t, because they’ll be drafting Auston Matthews. Let’s say for arguments sake that the Leafs lose the lottery, Puljujarvi makes a lot of sense for the Leaf starting at the second pick and going as long as he’s still on the board. While the Leafs draft record over the past two years has been deemed an overwhelming success, the knock has been the abundance of ‘smaller, flashier’ forwards.
While drafting a big center would be the ideal complement for the Leafs current group of prospects, aside from Matthews, it would be a pretty big stretch to take one in the top-4 of the draft. Jesse Puljujarvi is the next best thing. He doesn’t line up down the middle but he plays a style of game that closely resembles that of a centerman. He’s big, possession oriented and can be relied upon in all three zones when he doesn’t have the puck. I really don’t want to say it but the more I watch of Puljujarvi, the more he reminds me of another big Scandinavian that had a pretty successful career with the Leafs.
When you’re drafting in the top-3 of a draft, taking the best player available is always the best strategy. But what happens when there is very little separating the next two players on your list? You take the guy who best fits with what you already have, and for my money that would mean drafting Puljujarvi over Laine if I were Leafs management.
If Toronto doesn’t win the draft lottery, many will lament the loss of Auston Matthews and rightfully so, but it is important to remember that this is really a three player draft and picking two or three is comparable to getting the season pick last year. Puljujarvi has the potential to be a game-breaking franchise cornerstone and drafting him would instantly vault him to the top of the Leaf’s winger depth chart (yes ahead of Mitch Marner). It may not be what Tank Nation had been dreaming of but having Puljujarvi on Nylander’s wing for the next decade is something that might bring us pretty close to forgetting about the 20% chance we had at Auston Matthews.