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Oilers’ Puljujarvi gets chance to be hero as drama continues to swirl around him

The first tweet came from the guy at Oilers Nation, moments after Jesse Puljujarvi rifled home what would stand up as the game-winning goal, a blazing snap shot off the far post and past Ottawa goalie Anton Forsberg.

“Vintage Puljujarvi. Imagine wanting to place this kid on waivers.”

And then, the obligatory replies.

“Vintage? It was his 5th goal in 53 games,” countered @AthabascaPlace.

“I would of bet my house that the JP crusade was going to be revived the second he scored,” offered @Nellsy29.

Welcome to Bison country, where the most polarizing people in Northern Alberta are Jesse Puljujarvi, Premier Danielle Smith, and whoever GM Ken Holland brings in at the coming trade deadline.

On Friday the Oilers were poised to place Puljujarvi on waivers, fixing to send him and Devin Shore down to create the necessary salary cap space to bring Kailer Yamamoto back from injury. But the team decided to hold Yamamoto back, and then Warren Foegele didn’t practice on Friday after taking a Philip Broberg shot off the back of his leg.

The next thing he knew Puljujarvi was not only pulled back from purgatory, he was starting a game in Ottawa on Connor McDavid’s right wing.

Puljujarvi botched a Grade A chance on the opening shift. “Typical,” sighed half of Oilers fans.

Then, with the game tied 3-3 in the third period, he took a long pass from Brett Kulak, stepped in and wired one home.

“See!?! THAT’S what we’re talkin’ about!” said the other half.

“I saw the space there. Kulak gave me a really, really, good pass and I had a good shot there,” Puljujarvi said after the game. “It was really fun to be again in the lineup, and try to help the team somehow.

“Yeah, it was fun to come here and get a couple of points. And it was fun to score too.”

It’s been a long, rocky ride for Puljujarvi in Edmonton, as the realization sets in that 2016’s fourth-overall draft pick has become waiver fodder in 2023. He’s been healthy-scratched in three of Edmonton’s last eight games, and like that favourite painting of grandma’s that you somehow inherited, Holland has hung Puljujarvi in every corner of his lineup looking for a spot that meets the eye.

His teammates, some of whom have likely had their fill of Puljujarvi the project, genuinely like Puljujarvi the person. You could see that again on Saturday as he approached the bench for his post-goal fly-by, Evander Kane smiling as if he’d scored the game-winner himself.

“I don’t know if anyone saw, but the reaction of his teammates when he scored that goal…” said head coach Jay Woodcroft. “I think that shows how close our team is and how everyone was so very happy for him. His teammates and coaches included.”

Players know.

They know when a teammate is playing through an injury. They know when one isn’t as good as those of us on the outside think he is, and they know what each other is going through on and off the ice.

Puljujarvi, perhaps unwittingly, gained this mythical persona when he hopped into a stranger’s truck four years ago, and posed in this Snapchat video.

Then he and his dog Jaffa posed for that picture at Elk Island National Park with a bison in the background, and the Bison King was born. He trademarked the name. T-shirts ensued.

But as lovely as his snipe was on Saturday, it was just Puljujarvi’s fifth in 50 games this season. And the player whose analytics have been twisted into pretzels for so many years is not, in fact, Edmonton’s “best defensive forward,” as some of his fans have asserted. He has the worst plus-minus on the Oilers team this season, a minus-13 that is 10 goals below the next lowest number posted by a player in Saturday’s Oilers’ lineup.

“I mean, he’s a very likable person,” Woodcroft said. “You know, he does a lot of good things on the ice, (but) when we go 11 and seven … one of the hard things is it means some good forwards don’t get in the lineup. That’s through no issue of his or anything like that.

“It was a huge goal for our team. And I thought he played a really good game.”

How badly is Foegele hurt? Will Klim Kostin — who walked off cradling his left arm, looking very much like a guy who will miss some time with a shoulder injury — be moved on to the Long Term Injury list?

Is this rare goal the beginning of a Puljujarvi hot streak, an occurrence as long-awaited in these parts as a pipeline stretching all the way to Houston?

All of these things could alter Holland’s plans for Puljujarvi over the next few days, with Yamamoto and his $3.1 million salary set to return.

So the drama will continue. Circling, as it always has, the Bison King.


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