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True Grit: This Edmonton Oilers forward has it but rarely gets the credit he’s due

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Over the past few months, I’ve heard the following criticism from Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi:

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That he has a questionable hockey IQ.

That he needs to be more physical.

That the Oilers would do well to trade him, even if his value with other NHL teams isn’t that high.

Although some fanciful stats show the Oilers do better when he’s on the ice, some of his most illustrious teammates would rather play with other wingers.True Grit: This Edmonton Oilers forward has it but rarely gets the credit he’s due

Of course, Puljujarvi’s defenders and supporters are both vocal and numerous. Indeed, the majority of Oilers fans enjoy Puljujarvi’s play and felt a warm affinity towards him after the whole episode of Bison King.

Who doesn’t love a man who communes with bison?

But Puljujarvi’s critics are a vocal faction and some of them are well-placed mainstream media commentators close enough to the team that I wonder if they’re not, in essence, passing on a criticism of Puljujarvi that comes from real NHL insiders, like scouts, players and management types.

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I’m also wondering if this review fits Puljujarvi’s trade from Edmonton in the next few weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened.

As for my own assessment of Puljujarvi, I would say he was one of the Oilers’ strongest wingers when it came to even-strength two-sided play during the regular season. He took a huge step forward at the start of the year, only to take a big step back in the playoffs, so much so that I fear recency bias is clouding some people’s opinion regarding the merit of the player.

But Puljujarvi played poorly in many playoff games. As Oilers general manager Ken Holland suggested, it seemed Puljujarvi had lost faith in the playoffs. Instead of making plays himself, he was too eager to toss the puck around the o-zone panels for one of his teammates to pick it up.

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It’s not uncommon for players to sometimes lose their offensive confidence. I expect Puljujarvi to return to a higher level of play this season.

And I’d like to focus on one quality he has that his detractors always seem to overlook: true courage.

Puljujarvi doesn’t come off as a hockey tough guy. He’s not a big hitter like Zack Kassian. He’s not some kind of bully, like an Evander Kane. That said, Puljujarvi will throw a hit and take a hit to make a play.

Hard plays at net on Grade A shots

More than that, when it comes to the smart, brave and daring plays it often takes to create Grade A shots on the net, few Edmonton Oilers are more willing and able than Puljujarvi.

He was the Oilers’ second-best player two straight years in this dark art of the o-zone game.

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What do I mean by hard plays at net on Grade A shots?

I’m talking about fighting opposing d-men to tip shots on the net, crashing into the net to fight to block shots on the net, executing massive screens from the opposing goalkeeper on shots hard outsides, from charging hard on the net to act as a decoy major and digging hard on the boards to earn pucks that quickly go through the slot for the most dangerous shots.

I’m talking about the kind of games that give you bumps, bruises, sprains and dislocations. I’m talking about the kind of plays that help your team score goals, even if you never get a point on the play.

Puljujarvi is adept at all true grain games.

Again, he’s not a feared or formidable player on the ice, but he’s a glue player, doing the many hard and tough jobs that help his teammates get away with it.

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True Grit: This Edmonton Oilers forward has it but rarely gets the credit he’s due

Last year, in 65 games, Puljujarvi had 81 such hard games at the net on Grade A shots, 1.25 per game, which was an improvement from his tally the previous season, when he was at 0.85 per game.

In 2020-21, Alex Chiasson led the Oilers in hard plays at net on Grade A shots with 1.11 per game. This year, it was the brave Zach Hyman who led with 1.37 per game, with Hyman being particularly good at tipping and blocking pucks on the net. And if anyone was going to install a Total Eclipse of the Sun goalie screen, completely blocking the goalie’s view of the puck, it was probably the tenacious Hyman.

But Puljujarvi was right behind him. He too demonstrated the cunning, courage and tenacity of forward True Grit.

It’s something the Oilers need to consider when considering this player’s future, if only because this particular quality of Puljujarvi is so rarely noticed or mentioned by his detractors. It’s like he’s considered some kind of perimeter player. It is certainly not that.

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He’s not an attacking ace. I’m not saying it is.

He can be clumsy shooting and passing the puck.

He’s not yet super strong at shielding and protecting the puck.

He misses his share of coins.

But this young striker has courage. He has some talent.

In my eyes, if the contract price is right, he’s definitely a keeper.

True Grit: This Edmonton Oilers forward has it but rarely gets the credit he’s due

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