NHL.com is sitting down with newsmakers leading up to the 2020 NHL Draft on Oct. 6-7 and the NHL free agent signing period, which begins Oct. 9.
Today, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland discusses the top issues for the Oilers, including the possibility that 2016 first-round pick Jesse Puljujarvi could return to them, and what moves they may try to make considering No. 1 defenseman Oscar Klefbom may miss a significant portion of next season if surgery is required for an undisclosed injury.
Jesse Puljujarvi‘s return to the Edmonton Oilers remains a possibility, general manager Ken Holland said.
“I do have some optimism he will return to us for a variety of reasons,” Holland said Thursday. “He’s a restricted free agent and can’t play in the NHL unless we [sign him] or trade him, and I’m open to doing anything, but it’s got to make sense. So far, nothing has been offered that struck a deal.
“I’ve been talking to his agent, Markus Lehto, over the summer, and I think I’ll have some better understanding where I’m going here as we head into next week with regards to the relationship or non-relationship with Jesse.”
Puljujarvi, selected with the No. 4 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, played three seasons with the Oilers, scoring 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 139 games, but left them after his entry-level contract expired in 2019.
The 22-year-old forward went home to play for Karpat last season and scored 53 points (24 goals, 29 assists) in 56 games, tied for fourth in Liiga, the top professional league in Finland.
Puljujarvi was unhappy with his play for Edmonton in 2018-19, when he scored nine points (four goals, five assists) in 46 games. He spent parts of each of his three professional seasons in North America playing for Bakersfield in the American Hockey League.
Lehto has previously said Puljujarvi does not want to return to Edmonton and that he would prefer that his rights were traded to another NHL team.
Holland discussed the Puljujarvi situation, the Oilers’ goalie plan, the 2020 NHL Draft and much more in a Q&A with NHL.com:
You were not with the Oilers when Puljujarvi was there, having been hired after Jesse returned to Finland and asked to be traded. In your communications with him and his agent, how have you been trying to convince him to return?
“I think Jesse going back last year and playing in Finland, he feels good about himself and he had a great year, top five in scoring in Liiga. I think he had probably lost his confidence a little bit, like many young players do, and got that back, so [he] feels better about himself. Certainly, there’s opportunity here for young forwards. We’re always looking for good young forwards. There’s as much opportunity here as there is in other cities.”
What priorities do the Oilers have for the start of free agency?
“We’ve got to do something in goal. I’ve talked to (pending unrestricted free agent) Mike Smith‘s agent, Kurt Overhardt, a couple of times over the last three weeks, and I told him that … he’s still a consideration, but I want to get to Oct. 9 and explore the marketplace. Certainly, I thought Mike played well for us (19-12-6, 2.95 goals-against average, .902 save percentage), and he and Mikko Koskinen (18-13-3, 2.75 GAA, .917 save percentage) gave us a good tandem and were over the 71 games a big part of the reason that we were a playoff team. But there appears to be a goalie market, so I want to explore it and I’ll make my decisions then. Our deepest position is on defense. [Former GM] Peter Chiarelli and the staff did a great job drafting defensemen before I got here, guys like Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Evan Bouchard, William Lagesson and last year we drafted Philip Broberg. Young defensemen are a strength for the Oilers organization. Bear and Matt Benning are restricted free agents, so we’ve got to figure that out. Up front, we have re-signed Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard, but we have some unrestricted free agents (Tyler Ennis, Riley Sheahan). I still have to piece it all together.”
The Oilers have the No. 14 pick in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft, an option to keep your third-round pick or send it to the Calgary Flames to complete the Milan Lucic-for-James Neal trade, then picks in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. Are you looking to trade your first pick or add picks?
“I think you always want more picks than what you have. Certainly, if there’s an opportunity to get extra picks, I’ll listen. One way to get extra picks is to trade back, but I don’t see us spending assets to trade up. I spent enough assets at the [2020 NHL Trade] Deadline trying to make the team deeper and better to try to go on a playoff run. Right now, we’re planning to pick 14th, but certainly what ends up happening, everyone’s doing their preparations, talking to other teams about possibilities. That leads to trade talk. As you get closer to draft day, teams will ask what you could trade back. I’ve had some of those conversations, but I expect more of those conversations to transpire over the next four or five days. Our chief scout, Tyler Wright, is in town now, and we’re going to be together and we’ll try to be ready for any scenarios that are presented. We’re ready to go at pick No. 14, but if the phone rings … you’ve got to be flexible and open to go in different directions.”
How do you judge your first full season in charge of the Oilers?
“The 2019-20 season, for us, was two parts. It was the 71 games (37-25-9, .585 points percentage, fifth seed in the Western Conference), and then it was four games in a bubble (a loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers). If you judge us on the bubble, it was a disappointing season. We had higher expectations and aspirations. But if you judge us over the 71 games, I thought we made a lot of progress. We were second in the [Pacific] Division. We were in control of our own fate to play our way into the playoffs. We were No. 1 in power play (29.5 percent) and No. 2 in penalty killing (84.4 percent). We’ve gone from [25th] in points [percentage] to 12th. We moved up nine spots in goals-for and five spots in goals-against. In every metric, we had made an improvement over the previous year. I’m not going to weigh everything on the 71 games and forget the four, and vice versa. I can’t just evaluate the team on the four games against Chicago in early August. I thought we made progress. I thought (coach) Dave Tippett did a good job to get our team to compete on a nightly basis. We were competitive. The Western Conference is deep, and our challenge is in this offseason, to maintain what we’ve done and build on it.”