Jesse Puljujärvi (Markku Ulander/AFP/Getty Images)
The Finnish super-prospect was eclipsed in the second half by flashier countryman Patrik Laine, but Puljujarvi refuses to take a backseat - especially now that his English is better.
BUFFALO - The main attraction at today's draft combine access was top-rated Auston Matthews, as it probably should be. But for the few reporters who went to Jesse Puljujarvi first, a new personality could be seen. Puljujarvi, it seems, won't be taking a back seat to anyone for much longer.
Puljujarvi came into 2015-16 as the No. 2 prospect in the draft, but as fellow Finn Patrik Laine rose up, Puljujarvi found himself firmly ensconced at No. 3 on many boards. And hey; Laine is fantastic. His Tappara squad beat Puljujarvi's Karpat Oulu team in a classic playoff semifinal back home and it was Laine who won silver with the men's team at the World Championship in Russia, garnering MVP honors along the way.
But let's not forget how good Puljujarvi is. He was the MVP at the world juniors and he helped drive Finland to gold at the world under-18s. Total up the teams the teens were on and you've got an incredible year for Suomi.
"We have good players in Finland and good coaching," Puljujarvi said. "Two golds and one silver, that's an unbelievable season.”
Puljujarvi spoke through a translator at the world juniors while Laine grabbed headlines for calling victories over Canada and Russia. Now Puljujarvi is stepping up. He's taking English lessons once a week and is showing confidence already. For example, does he think he can go straight to the NHL next year?
“Yeah, of course," Puljujarvi said. "I'm ready. I'm a good skater and I'm ready.”
The upshot of the youngster's growing confidence in his English is that we get to learn more about him. For example, he was actually born in Sweden and lived there until he was four (though culturally he identifies as Finnish). He also played bandy for years, a game similar to hockey that is bigger in Europe. Bandy is played on an ice rink the size of a soccer pitch, with 11 players aside. As you can imagine, that means a lot of skating and Puljujarvi points to his bandy background as one of the reasons he skates so well.
Conventional wisdom has the powerful right winger going third overall to Columbus, a franchise that could use Puljujarvi's deadly combination of size, skill and skating. The Blue Jackets also happen to have a Finnish GM in Jarmo Kekalainen and Puljujarvi revealed that when they met for his draft combine interview, the meeting went between English and Finnish.
As for Liiga playoff bragging rights, Laine was humble about the challenge that his buddy gave Tappara.
"It was really nice to play against him and that whole Karpat team," Laine said. "They won a couple in a row so it was a huge challenge, but we played pretty well in the series and earned those wins."
The next step for both, let's face it, is the NHL. For the sake of argument, let's pencil in Laine at No. 2 for Winnipeg, with Columbus nabbing Puljujarvi right after. Laine probably has the inside track for the Calder, since the Jets are further ahead in their rebuild than Matthews' Maple Leafs and Pujujarvi's Jackets (hence more immediate talent to play with), but three, four years down the road, who knows? I'm looking at a Puljujarvi-Boone Jenner-Kerby Rychel combination as being skilled, brutish and downright intimidating to face in Columbus.
True, there is still nearly a month before Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi even get to put on NHL sweaters, but given how this draft class is shaping up with Matthew Tkachuk and Pierre-Luc Dubois rounding out the top-five and you're looking at a lot of elite talent coming in fast.
And Puljujarvi deserves some of that spotlight.