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Future Watch: Khaira's game evolving in Bakersfield

Jujhar Khaira's pro experience has his game progressing with the Condors

by Paul Gazzola /

After compiling 120-games worth of experience in the American Hockey League, plus another 15 with the Oilers in the National Hockey League, Bakersfield Condors centreman Jujhar Khaira's game is reaching new heights.

The imposing pivot, standing bulky at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, is forming a career year in California this season. In only 14 matches with the Condors, the 2012 third-rounder has five goals and five assists for 10 points. He's halfway to his AHL career-high in goals - which he set last season with 10 - in 35 fewer games.

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The Surrey, BC native is acquainting himself much more with the professional level and it's paying off. In his first 57 contests in the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons - now Bakersfield Condors - he mustered just 10 points. Like with any new job or position, there's always an adjustment period. But after a solid 2015-16 season in both the AHL and NHL, Khaira's performance has taken off.

The 22-year-old played 64 games total last year, spending time with the Condors and Oilers. He suited up for 49 with Bakersfield and 15 with Edmonton, registering 29 total points - two of those being assists with Edmonton.

"It's a great development league," Khaira said about the AHL. "(I'm) just trying to, not perfect my game, but definitely make my game a lot better slowly."

His time with the Oil has proven to be a difference-maker in his trajectory. Khaira had success with the blue and orange, as they went 10-4-1 with him in the lineup. He has clearly absorbed as much as he could while with the big club and has been applying that knowledge to his play in Bakersfield.

It's culminating into the next step of his evolution as a player.

"When you start to score goals and start to get points your confidence starts to grow," said Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming. "He's making plays with the puck, he's thinking the game a little bit more and he's getting used to the pro game."

Nothing in Khaira's conduct has necessarily changed, either. He's simply picked up where he left off from last year.

"You just get used to the level of competition or familiar with the level of competition and your game evolves from there," said Fleming.

Khaira's dynamic as a player is extensive. His body size provides him with the means to flourish down low and play a physical brand of hockey. He can battle along the boards with the opposition's biggest defenceman and come away with the puck, create room for his linemates or throw his weight around.

His puck-handling is also a strong aspect of his game, allowing him to elude disruptive sticks and place the puck where his teammates are going to be.

Khaira's skating, though - an area of emphasis for him during this off-season - has also improved.

The centre was keen on strengthening the power of his stride, focusing more on exerting a bursting agility rather than a top speed. His reasoning behind that is smart, as it augments his style of play.

"My main focus this year was in tight areas coming out of corners with speed," said Khaira. "Just picking up speed in little areas and try to beat guys out of the corners."

Scott Allen, who's enjoyed time flanking Khaira on the Condors second line, has had a first-hand glimpse of the effect of the behemoth middleman.

"The first thing by just looking at the guy is his big frame," said Allen. "He's a large guy and when he gets out on the ice you can tell he has very quick hands, he can skate really well up and down the ice and if you have a big guy with hands and that can skate, you're going to have a lot of potential."

Just like with most clubs, the Condors have their mix of veterans and rookies. Khaira, who has that NHL experience even though he's only 22, has been able to offer advice to the players still getting accustomed to the league. The 26-year-old Allen, who said he's still "cutting my teeth into the league," has enjoyed soaking in Khaira's guidance.

"We know he's been in the NHL so he knows what will work and what doesn't work so we definitely trust his judgment that way," Allen said.

Fleming encourages it as well.

"It's a great opportunity when you get a chance to play with the big club," he said. "Anybody who goes up there and comes back, we want them to bring that knowledge that they went up there and got and apply it to their game and make guys down here better as well."

It's been working out so far, but with the evolution of Khaira's play, there's no certainty in how long he will remain in the minors.

Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli has added an influx of lumbering players to the organization during his time at the helm. Even though he never drafted Khaira, it seems as though the centre's game is even more aptly suited for the club than before.

"I think from what he's done in the last year or so, he's brought in bigger guys," Khaira said. "I think that's good for me. I think it will be appreciated."

For the most part, the Oilers muscle - the likes of Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian - is on the wing. Khaira's clout would divert some of that weight to the middle of the ice.

"He's a big, strong, physical, heavy player and I think his game can continue to grow in the way that it has to give himself an opportunity," said Fleming.

Although Khaira isn't focusing too much on it now - electing to keep his concentration ingrained on the Condors - he's undoubtedly displaying a belief in himself, as well as his progression as a player.

"I showed myself and showed people around me that I could play in that League," said Khaira. "Now, the next step is to prove myself that I can be a consistent NHLer."

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