Jesse Puljujarvi is in Bakersfield to prove a point.
If he does, he may not stay long.
The Edmonton Oilers would like nothing more than to see their fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft logging lots of ice time with them and racking up big numbers offensively.
But they have deemed him not-yet-ready-for-prime-time and thus the 19-year old begins his second pro season where he ended the first: down on the farm with the Condors, who open American Hockey League play Friday night in Stockton.
“It’s about development with Jesse,” Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli said of Puljujarvi in a press conference in Edmonton earlier this week. “What I told Jesse is look what happened with Darnell (Nurse), look what happened with Leon (Draisaitl). They were a year ahead of Jesse. He was upset. We had a long meeting.”
Both Nurse, a defenseman, and Draisaitl, a forward, started the 2015-16 season with the Condors and were called up to Edmonton within a month, never to return.
Puljujarvi’s ascension might not be that quick.
The Oilers are in a much different position than two years ago when Draisaitl and Nurse both made their quick exits from Bakersfield, due to injuries and a lack of depth at the NHL level.
Edmonton ended a 10-year playoff drought last season and reached the second round of the Western Conference playoffs before falling to Anaheim in seven games. The Oilers are a far better team than two years ago and have more depth.
Which means they can be patient with Puljujarvi, who at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds has the size and skating ability to be a force at right wing on the NHL level.
If his skill set is honed to an NHL level.
“I told him I did see a lot of improvement this year,” Chiarelli said. “I thought he was playing straighter lines. I thought he was pursuing the puck better. He was making more plays.
“But he wasn’t without mistakes. I said 'you’ve got to clean up your game a little bit, go down there and shove it up my you know what.'"
Which is Puljujarvi’s plan.
“Work on my skating and confidence, play many minutes here and go back,” Puljujarvi said after a recent practice with the Condors.
His comment in itself is a growth from last year when he came over from his home country of Finland with almost no grasp of English.
The Oilers kept him close to the vest last season while he grew accustomed to a new culture, language and the North American style of hockey. He played sparingly in 28 games for the Oilers before sending him to the Condors on Jan. 9.
Puljujarvi played in a top-six role with the Condors, getting lots of ice time and putting up 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games.
Condors coach Gerry Fleming said Puljujarvi will once again be logging big minutes on the ice to further his development and refine his skills.
“He knows what he has to work on,” Fleming said. “He understands the things he has to do on a consistent basis to play in the NHL. Those are the things we’re going to help him with.”
Fleming said there is plenty to like about Puljujarvi’s game, especially at the AHL level.
“There’s places in his game where he does things really, really well.” he said. “He’s big, he can skate, has a tremendous shot and is gifted offensively.”
But it’s about taking that game to the next level and then leaving Bakersfield in his wake.
“There’s still areas in the game we’d like to see him improve on,” Fleming said. “Puck protection, his wall work, being a little more physical. Those are the types of things he’s here to work on.”
And the Oilers, as they do with all their prospects, will be paying attention.
“I wouldn’t be adverse to bringing him back, but I want to see his game cleaned up a little bit,” Chiarelli said. “I’m happy with the development trail he’s on. He’s a big body, he’s learning living in this country. He’s still learning the language so there’s a climatization component to this too. But we’ll keep a close eye on him.”