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In the past few months I’ve heard the following from critics of Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi.

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That he has an iffy hockey IQ.

That he needs to be more physical.

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

That while some fancy stats show the Oilers do better when he’s on the ice, some of his most illustrious teammates would prefer to play with other wingers.

Of course, Puljujarvi’s defenders are many. Indeed, the majority of Oilers fans appreciate Puljujarvi and felt affinity towards him after the whole Bison King episode. But Puljujarvi’s detractors are a loud faction, and some of them are well-placed mainstream media commentators, close enough to the team that I wonder if they’re essentially passing on a critique of Puljujarvi that comes from real NHL insiders, such as scouts, players and management types.

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I also wonder if this critique doesn’t add up to Puljujarvi getting traded out of Edmonton in the next few weeks. I won’t be surprised if this happens.

As for my own assessment of Puljujarvi, I’ll suggest he was one of the strongest Oilers wingers when it came to two-way play at even strength during the regular season, that he took a huge step up early in the year, only to take a major step back in the playoffs. As Oilers GM Ken Holland has suggested, it looked like Puljujarvi lost his confidence in the playoffs. Instead of making plays himself, he was too keen to shoot the puck around the o-zone boards for one of his teammates to pick up.

But it’s not uncommon for players to lose their offensive confidence at times. I expect Puljujarvi will get back to a higher level of play this coming season.

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

Puljujarvi doesn’t come across as a hard man of hockey. He’s not a big hitter like Zack Kassian. He’s not any kind of intimidator, like an Evander Kane. That said, Puljujarvi will throw a hit and take a hit to make a play.

Hard plays at the net on Grade A shots

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

He’s been the second best Oilers player two years running at this dark art of the game. I’m talking fighting off opposing d-men to tip shots on net, crashing the net to battle to jam shots at the net, executing massive screens of the opposing goalie on hard outside shots, charging hard at the net to act as a major decoy, and digging in hard on the boards to win pucks that quickly get passed into the slot for the most dangerous of shots.

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Puljujarvi is adept at all those true grit plays. Again, he’s not a feared or fearsome player on the ice, but he is a glue player, doing the numerous tough and difficult jobs that help his teammates get off nasty slot and crease shots.

This past year, in 65 games Puljujarvi made 81 such hard plays at the net on Grade A shots, 1.25 per game, which was an improvement on his total from the previous season, when he was at 0.85 per game.

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

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But Puljujarvi was just behind him. He, too, demonstrated the guile, courage and tenacity of the True Grit attacker.

It’s something for the Oilers to consider as they ponder this player’s future, if only because this particular quality of Puljujarvi is so rarely noticed or mentioned by his critics. It’s as if he’s seen as some kind of perimeter player. He is most definitely not that.

He’s no ace attacker. I’m not saying he is. He can be clumsy shooting and passing the puck. He’s not yet super strong shielding and protecting the puck. He flubs up his share of plays. But this young forward has screamed. He’s got some skill.

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

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