Jesse Puljujarvi is getting another crack at the NHL.
And it couldn’t come at a better time for Edmonton’s fourth overall selection in the 2016 draft.
While his more celebrated brethren — Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine — are legitimate young stars in the NHL, Puljujarvi has wiled most of his time away in the AHL with Bakersfield.
Originally thought to be a blue-chipper with great play-making skills down the right side, Puljujarvi got in 28 games with the Oil last season, before being demoted.
He didn’t make the team out of training camp this year and has scored five points in 10 games with the Condors. Injuries to a few Oilers have paved the way for Puljujarvi’s return on Saturday, where he scored his second career goal in a 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers.
He’ll need to make the most of this opportunity, if he doesn’t want to become part of a cadre of touted first round picks who were busts at the highest level.
We’ve culled 15 from recent drafts (back to 2012) who have either already tanked on their NHL careers, or are about to (in chronological order).
15. C Brendan Gaunce – Vancouver Canucks
We’re not sure what effect playing with Connor McDavid in junior had on Brendan Gaunce, but he’s tip-toeing a fine line between being a NHL regular and hockey anonymity. Since being selected 26th overall by the Canucks in 2012, the big center turned winger has been up-and-down between the big club and the Utica Comets of the AHL like a yo-yo for four seasons. Gaunce had his best year in junior in 2013-14, getting traded from Belleville (where he had 26 points in 22 games) to the McDavid’s Erie Otters, where he piled up 46 more points in 43 games. He turned pro in 2014-15 and played a full season in Utica (under current Canucks’ coach Travis Green), and then another part season in 2015-16 before getting a late season call-up. He had one goal in 20 games that year and in 2016-17 he had five assists in 57 games, mostly as bottom six material. He’s up again after a short stint in Utica and soon must stick.
14. C Frederik Gauthier – Toronto Maple Leafs
A crowd of talented youngsters in Toronto has meant that the competition for jobs is more fierce than ever, not only at the highest level but with the AHL’s Marlies and ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears. Gauthier, who was drafted 21st overall in 2013 out Rimouski, looked like he had the size and two-way hockey sense to at least be a valuable bottom-six pivot. At 6’5″ he’s hard to miss and his face-off acumen was on full display in 21 games with the Leafs last year, when he won 51.1 percent of his draws, while scoring two goals and an assist in just under 10 minutes of playing time per game. A late season injury with the Marlies meant a long recovery, but recover he did, but it wasn’t enough to catch on with the Leafs out of training camp. He recently got called up to fill a roster spot voided by the injured Auston Matthews, but has yet to play.
13. LW Kerby Rychel – Toronto Maple Leafs
Drafted just ahead of sometime Toronto Marlies’ teammate Frederik Gauthier was junior sniper Kerby Rychel. The son of former NHLer Warren Rychel (who is also his agent), Rychel was taken 19th overall by Columbus, who no doubt liked the 90 points he put up between the Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm the year after he was drafted. Like many young potential stars, Rychel started his NHL journey with Springfield of the AHL, where he had 33 points in 51 games. He got a five-game audition with the Jackets and scored three assists. He split time between the Lake Erie Monsters and Columbus during the 2015-16 season and after a trade demand, was dealt to Toronto at the conclusion of the entry draft (Toronto was a team which was interested when he went public about his lack of ice time in Columbus). So far, he hasn’t played a game for the Leafs, even after scoring 52 points in 73 games for the Marlies last season. The clock is definitely ticking on Rychel.
12. D Samuel Morin – Philadelphia Flyers
Defence at the NHL level is hard. However, it should have been an easier path for giant former Rimouski Oceanic defender Samuel Morin. A teammate of Frederik Gauthier, who was also drafted in the first round in 2013 and is on this list, the 6’6″ Morin was taken 11th overall by the Flyers after four stand-out seasons in the QMJHL. Morin combined decent puck-moving ability (87 points in 200 games), with defensive awareness (+46) and toughness (363 penalty minutes). As is normally the case for young defenceman, he apprenticed with Lehigh Valley in 2015-16, scoring 19 points and recording a -5 and 118 PIM in 76 games. He was very consistent again in 2016-17, logging 16 points, 129 PIM and an even rating for the Phantoms. Thus far, though, he’s managed to get in just one NHL game during the 2016-17 season. He’s not a bust, yet, but there has to be a point he either makes the Flyers or becomes trade bait.
11. C Conner Bleackley – St. Louis Blues
Depending on which way Conner Bleackley’s career is looked at, he could either be a complete first round bust, or fifth round success story. Originally selected 23rd overall by Colorado in 2014, Bleackley was a standout playmaker with the Red Deer Rebels. But, questions about his conditioning and then the lack of a contract offer by the Avs made him available for the 2016 draft, where St. Louis picked him at 144th overall in the fifth round. With a shot at redemption for the Blues, Bleackley has bounced between the Chicago Wolves of the AHL (10 points in 45 games) and the Missouri Mavericks/Tulsa Oilers of the ECHL (29 points in 26 games). Bleackley is performing at the ECHL level and is still just 21, but needs to make the big step beyond the AHL level to avoid the “bust” label.
10. D Julius Honka – Dallas Stars
By our estimation, Julius Honka should be a full-time member of the Dallas blue line right now. Drafted 14th overall in 2014 from the Swift Current Broncos, he was seen as a blue chip play-making defenceman. The Finnish national developed well in his first two seasons of minor league hockey, scoring 75 points in 141 games with the Texas Stars. In 2016-17, he finally got his big break with the Stars, who were having all kinds of issues defensively. It was Honka’s time to prove his worth and in spurts, he did. He got in 16 games in three different call-ups, scoring five points and logging a -4 rating. After some off-season upheaval, Honka made the Stars out of training camp and played fairly well through five games on a clogged Stars blue line (they carried nine defencemen early, when they only needed seven). Then Honka had one bad game in a early season 5-3 loss to Colorado when he went -3 and was demoted. He is back with Texas, but should be up with the big club.
9. RW Evgeny Svechnikov – Detroit Red Wings
With at least four players drafted below him in the first round of the 2015 draft doing good things at the NHL level, the fact former QMJHL sniper Svechnikov hasn’t stuck is puzzling. Drafted 19th overall in 2015, Svechnikov scored 157 points in 105 games for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles over two seasons. He made the jump to the AHL in 2016-17 and played well, scoring 51 points in 74 games and another 12 points in 19 playoff games for the Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins. He did have a two-game call-up and scored a beauty in a late-season shootout win over Ottawa, which was the only successful attempt among 14 total shots between the Wings and Sens. With a spot on the Wings looking good in training camp, Svechnikov was injured and returned to Grand Rapids. He has three points in 10 games so far, but is still weak on the defensive side of the puck (-4), so will need to get his all around game on track if he hopes to stay with Detroit some day.
8. Lawson Crouse – Arizona Coyotes
This should have been Lawson Crouse’s time to break out. Thought highly enough of to be drafted 11th overall by Florida in 2015 (the same draft as Connor McDavid et al) Crouse is not with a Coyotes team struggling along with a 2-14-3 record as of Monday. With 2016 pick Clayton Keller lighting it up, Crouse should be with the big team too, especially after playing the entire miserable 2016-17 season in the desert. He had 12 points and was -20 (like many of his teammates) in 72 games, while playing just under 12 minutes a game. He threw his weight around well, dishing out 160 hits and was tough on the puck, with just five giveaways compared to 14 takeaways. He made the team out of training camp, but, as the team struggled so did he. Crouse managed zero points in seven games and was -3, though he did register 24 hits and six blocked shots. He’s doing well in the minors with Tucson (five points in six games, +5) but should be in a NHL uniform.
7. D Derrick Pouliot – Vancouver Canucks
The 2017-18 season might be Derrick Pouliot’s last kick at the NHL can. So far, the eighth overall selection from the 2012 draft has played in 14 of the Canucks first 17 games after arriving in a trade from Pittsburgh. He never lived up to expectations with the Penguins, bouncing between them and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate for three years. He had 14 points and was -11 in 67 total NHL games, while putting up 70 points and a +32 in 114 AHL contests. So far, the deal that put him on the Canadian west coast has worked out, with his ice time increasing to well over 20 minutes per game recently. He has three assists in 14 games and is +2. However, the Canucks, after a hot start, have lost five of their last seven and have tumbled in the standings. We’ll see how long Pouliot stays a hot commodity.
6. D Griffin Reinhart – Vegas Golden Knights
Another player from the 2012 draft that has not fulfilled his big league promise is fourth overall pick Griffin Reinhart. A star in junior and son of former NHL great Paul Reinhart, Griffin’s path to NHL glory seemed pre-destined. The Islanders picked him ahead of now everyday NHL blue line regulars Morgan Rielly (5th to Toronto), Hampus Lindholm (6th to Anaheim) and Matt Dumba (7th to Minnesota). Thus far, though, Reinhart has played in just 37 NHL games with two teams (Islanders and Edmonton Oilers) and was left unprotected in the expansion draft, getting scooped up by Vegas. It was thought he could revive his moribund career in Sin City, but played no games with them and was waived on Oct. 30. He ended up in the AHL with the Chicago Wolves after going unclaimed on the waiver wire. So far with Chicago he has zero points and is -3 in six games.
5. RW Valeri Nichushkin – Dallas Stars
He’s still just 22, but it seems that Valeri Nichushkin has been around for a long, long time. Drafted 10th overall in 2013 by the Stars, Nichushkin’s once promising NHL career has been on again, off again, on again, off again. After scoring 34 points in 79 games during his rookie 2013-14 campaign, the Chelyabinsk native had to have hip surgery during his sophomore season and played in just eight games for the big club and five with the Texas Stars. In 2015-16, Nichushkin returned full-time to the line-up and performed well in just under 14 minutes of ice time per game, scoring nine goals and 20 assists in 79 games. A restricted free agent in 2016, he couldn’t come to terms with the Stars — and was unhappy about his role, anyway — and he returned to the KHL with CSKA Moscow (with Dallas retaining his NHL rights). It has been stated by Stars GM Jim Nill that Nichushkin, who has 16 points in 25 games with CSKA this season, might return to Big D in 2018.
4. LW Michael Dal Colle – New York Islanders
Of the 30 players taken in the first round of the 2014 draft, only two have failed to make an appearance in a regular season NHL contest. One of them is fifth overall selection Michael Dal Colle of the Islanders. Thought to be a sure-fire sniper out of junior, Dal Colle is still percolating with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He scored 131 goals and added 185 assists in 246 OHL games over four seasons. After his final OHL season in 2015-16, Dal Colle put up decent numbers in his first AHL campaign. scoring 15 goals and 26 assists in 75 games. He didn’t make the Islanders out of training camp this season and has five points and a -1 rating in 12 games with Bridgeport. What the 6’2″ winger does have in his favor is his age, as he just turned 21 in June, so there is time — but not much of it.
3. C Dylan Strome – Arizona Coyotes
It will probably just be a matter of time before Dylan Strome is called up from the Tucson Roadrunners to the woeful Arizona Coyotes this season. However, we can’t help but feel that there is so much wasted talent so far, where former junior superstar Dylan Strome is concerned. His former teammate at Erie, from who Strome was picked third overall in 2015, Connor McDavid, is a legit NHL star, as is second overall pick Jack Eichel. Strome, on the other hand, has failed to impress Coyotes brass enough to stick around for more than nine NHL games so far. He tallied 114 goals and 240 assists in 224 OHL games, numbers that probably had ‘Yotes management salivating. He had one point in a seven-game stint in 2016-17 before being returned to Erie. Then, in two games this season had zero points before being shipped to the farm in Tucson. However, he is just 20 and had 15 points in 10 games on the farm, as of Monday.
2. RW Alexander Nylander – Buffalo Sabres
He may still only be 19, but the way youth has been served in the NHL, Alexander Nylander has to start playing like he belongs in Buffalo. Picked eighth overall by Buffalo in 2016, the brother of Toronto’s William seemed destined for greatness. He had 75 points in 57 OHL games with Mississauga (his only junior season in Canada) and then spent a season with Rochester in the AHL. He started out well, but faded down the stretch for the Amerks, recording 28 points in 65 games and recording a dismal -24. He did get a four-game audition with Buffalo last season, registering an assist and a -2. He has yet to play for anyone in 2017-18, as a lower body injury has kept him out of the Rochester line-up after he was demoted in the pre-season.
1. D Olli Juolevi – Vancouver Canucks
As we stated earlier in this piece, playing defence at the NHL level is tough. Yet, after being drafted fifth overall in 2016, it seemed like Finnish star Juolevi had all the tools to make it early onto the NHL roster in Vancouver. He has the size (6’2″, 190lbs.), skill (82 points in 115 OHL games with the London Knights) and defensive awareness (+64 with London) to be an effective everyday NHLer. But, a look at the top 10 picks in the 2016 draft sees only one guy, Juolevi, without at least four games of NHL experience. For this season at least, the Canucks returned the 19-year-old rearguard to his native Finland to play with top Liiga club Turku. He has three goals and three assists in nine games so far and is no doubt absorbing some knowledge from teammate Henrik Tallinder, who played a long time in the NHL.