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IN DEPTH: Waiting game

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers
**We're re-running our February Sunday In-Depth on the life of a prospect.**


It was a standoff that lasted six seconds.


With the score tied at two, then-Penguins defenceman Adam Clendening protected the puck behind the net, scanning the ice while his linemates made a change. Meanwhile, Oilers forward Jujhar Khaira stood squarely in front, just within reach of Jeff Zatkoff’s crease.

As a rookery of Penguins players circled the lone-standing Oiler, Clendening suddenly rocketed a pass up the right-hand side, but Khaira — playing in his first NHL game for Edmonton — intercepted the puck and with lightning speed, turned counter clockwise and whipped a backhand shot from point-blank range.

Khaira, who nearly gave Edmonton the lead with 6:04 left to play in the third, made a statement that night; he is knocking on the door to the exclusive club of full-time NHL employment.
 
LIFE AS A PROSPECT
 Photo by Mark Nessia / Bakersfield Condors
After playing 12 games with the Oilers this season, Khaira has taken up residence with his American Hockey League (AHL) Bakersfield Condors teammates once again.

He isn’t bitter about his return to the minors. He recognizes that his time served down there was what earned him a spot in the Oilers lineup in the first place.

“I just wanted my mindset right when I got the news, I wanted to come down here and get back to my game and just try to keep it simple and play well and try to get the call back up,” he said.

“I feel like you’re down here to improve your game and at the end of the day the main goal is to make it up to the NHL.”

Talking to both coaches before he left, Khaira was clear on narrowing down what he could work on to help make him a permanent fit to the Oilers roster.

“I think a lot of the stuff I needed to work on was stuff I needed to work on this past couple of years,” he said. “It’s slowly improving…and just confidence altogether I think, the more confidence I get the better I’ll be and I’m just working towards that.”

Photo by Ryan Hrycun / Edmontonoilers.com
Standing at six-feet and three-inches tall, selected by the Oilers in the third round, 63rd overall, of the 2012 NHL Draft, the 214-pound left-winger has made himself a noticeable presence on the ice.

“I knew from exhibition season, from training camp, he had a fairly good awareness on how to use his size. It was whether he could use that size at a pace that was going to be effective and he’s shown that he can,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan.

“Positionally, he’s been in the right spot many times and when the puck is around him he’s bigger, he’s stronger. I recall a moment I think in Pittsburgh, I don’t think he was looking to finish a check and somebody bounced off of him. It’s nice to have that heaviness.”
   
For many young hockey players, the ultimate dream is to one day play in the NHL. Though it’s easy to set sights on the end-goal, it isn’t always easy getting there, but Condors Head Coach Gerry Fleming said he sees lots of promise in Khaira.  

“When guys get sent down from the NHL, the first couple of games there’s always a bump. They’re still at that NHL level. It tapers off a little bit as you get more settled into the American Hockey League level,” he said.

“JJ made strides and made big strides in his game — even prior to being called up — he was stronger, his quickness was a little bit better, his decision making was definitely better, his play without the puck improved, so there were strides in his game and he continues to make those strides.”

According to Khaira, the life of a prospect is a journey that offers many prospective NHL players a number of experiences and opportunities. It’s also a position that makes you work hard — you have to earn it to enjoy it.

“It’s good — you always have something to prove,” he said. “When you’re young, you want to get into the NHL as fast as possible. It’s stressful at times, and that’s stress you put on yourself, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a great opportunity to be a prospect and I’m just trying to enjoy it.” 
MEANS TO AN END
 Photo by Mark Nessia / Bakersfield Condors
Photo by Mark Nessia / Bakersfield Condors.
There is something to be said for recalled players like Khaira. They’re not only determined to make an impact, they’re aiming to be the solution, add to or even enhance the dynamics that a team has been looking for. They want to be that player a team just can’t be without.

That’s not to say though that they aren’t in awe of the process. Khaira’s debut in Pittsburgh, against the Penguins, was an eye-opener for the 21-year-old.

“The start of the game, even when I was on the bench, I’d just catch myself looking at [Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby], not even watching the play, just looking at them and going, ‘Wow, I’m actually playing against these guys,’” he said.
 
It’s a special moment, one that Gene Principe, Canadian sports reporter for Sportsnet, described in his blog post Big City Boys, as being a little more than about wins and losses. It’s more of “a chance to experience places that will provide memories never to be forgotten.”

But there has been a long-withstanding debate over prospects and where it is they would develop best — in the majors or minor leagues. It’s a topic of conversation that the Oilers bench boss has addressed on occasion.

“We have a really good staff in the American League. They’re very good at what they do, we believe in them as well, and they take our ideas and our approach and apply them down there,” said McLellan.

“If our group here in Edmonton can reward [a player] with seven minutes a night and their staff down there can reward [a player] with 18 minutes a night, we have to weigh what’s best for the individual. The team always comes first, but what’s best for the individual?”

Players can be recalled at a moment’s notice, and in turn, players can be sent down to recharge their batteries. On Wednesday, the Oilers assigned goaltender Anders Nilsson to Bakersfield and recalled netminder prospect Laurent “LB” Brossoit.  

“He’s earned the right to be here. He’s had a tremendous season in the minors, just coming off an All-Star Game,” said McLellan. “Anders needs to get a little work in and I didn’t foresee us giving him much of that net-time here.”

Aside from the AHL being a league where young players have the chance to play a lot more, the league’s main focus — or mantra if you will — is on player development and preparing them for the majors, something that Fleming takes great pride in.

“That’s our job here, it’s to prepare guys to play in Edmonton,” he said. “Seeing guys go up and do well, it’s very rewarding as a staff, and the players on the other side see the success that guys have had going up, so it makes them even more motivated to do their best and work hard and get that opportunity.”
RECALLED
 Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
There was a moment of pause, followed by a moment of excitement for Khaira who, before stepping onto the rink for practice in Bakersfield, received word that he had been called up by the Oilers.

After appearing in 16 games with the Condors, posting seven points (3G, 4A) and seven penalty minutes, the Surrey, B.C. native was ready, but first he had one important task to complete.

“When I got the news, the first thing I had to do was call my parents and I had to share the excitement with them,” said Khaira.

“I don’t think it actually hit me until I was in Detroit getting dressed for warmup.”

The news triggers a domino effect. After the initial excitement sinks in, prospects have to start preparing for the next step — and that usually means travel. There are a number of factors that come into play when a player has been recalled by the parent club.

Travelling from point A to point B isn’t always a smooth experience. When Condors defenceman Brad Hunt was recalled in December, he was prevented from joining the Oilers lineup in Calgary due to mechanical issues with a plane that caused enough flight delays the airline decided to cancel it altogether.

“I was pumped,” said Hunt. “I was all ready to go — ate properly throughout the day — and then got on the plane and get off the plane and I’m still in Denver.”

Hunt eventually made it onto a flight that allowed him to join the Oilers on home turf but, unlike his Condors teammate, Khaira was able to take his time.

“It’s different, I think. It depends on the schedule, but I had a little bit of time to go home and pack,” he said. “I actually flew out of LA so I had a car service from Bakersfield to LA and I actually flew out the next day. So for me it was pretty easy. I had a lot of time to kind of prepare and to pack all of my things.”

Though players work on their physical development and impact they have on the ice, mentally prospects try to prepare themselves for the potential for a call-up throughout the season.

Physically, they want and need to be ready for the call-up, because, according to Khaira, there is an adjustment period that has to take place when moving from the minor to the major league.

“I feel like it took a couple games just to get comfortable and get used to,” he said. “Just the style of play up there compared to down here, I feel as the time went on I did get more comfortable and find my rhythm.”

“When I got up there and played my first game, I just tried to keep things simple and just play my game. The coaches and the players up there made me really comfortable, they just wanted me to play my game, they said mistakes come and you learn off them, from then every game I just got more confident and I just played as best as I could.”
LASTING IMPRESSIONS
 Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
Khaira made his pro hockey debut with the Oilers former AHL affiliate the Oklahoma City Barons in April of 2014, after skating for the Everett Silvertips in his first Western Hockey League season in 2013.

In 59 regular season games for the Silvertips he scored 16 goals with 28 assists and was +5 with 59 penalty minutes.

When Khaira joined the Oilers, he was ready to make an impact, but he knew he had to feel out his new environment and get to know his new teammates’ playing styles.

“I just tried to stick to the basics,” said Khaira. “At first I kept it simple, and then, just as time went on, I think the coaches — and myself, I expected more from myself, because I was getting used to the pace and players — just felt like I could make plays and I just wanted to find that part of my game as well.”

And find it he did when suddenly Khaira advanced from the bottom six forward role, to the top — making an impact playing with Oilers linemates Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl.

“I was just trying to get pucks in deep, create space and just be a big body out there. Just hit and grind their defence down low and just be smart defensively,” said Khaira.

In 12 games with the Oilers, Khaira posted two points 0-2-2, earning his first NHL-career point assisting Hall’s goal against the Dallas Stars in December.

“[He’s] a very hungry young man,” said McLellan. “A guy that’s going to have an impact along the boards, in [and] around the net — aggressive.”

“I think he’s an NHL player that just needs a little more time to grow his game and I think it won’t be long before he’s back and working hard to be a full-time player.”

Jujhar Khaira and Taylor Hall celebrate Hall's goal against the Dallas Stars. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.
Ultimately, that’s a prospects end-goal. Work hard, earn your spot and make an impact where you can with the chances that are given to you.

As McLellan once said, the NHL is the league everybody desires to be in. Once a prospective player has spent some time in the majors that desire only increases.

For now, Khaira is focused on enhancing his player development and contributing to the Condors upward climb in the Pacific Division standings.

“We’ve had a couple of rough games, but for the most part our team’s growing and I think the last few games here we’ve really been playing well,” he said. “We’ve been keeping it simple and playing as a team, so I think the more we play together, the better we’ll be and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”

According to the Condors bench boss, the tools are there. It’s all in how he utilizes them. 

“Hopefully, maybe he gets another call-up and if he does I’m sure he’ll do his best with it, but in the meantime he’s down here working on things that he needs to improve on and getting those areas of his game better,” said Fleming.

Six seconds of patiently waiting was all it took before Khaira created a scoring opportunity against the Penguins. Off the ice, there is a stark contrast as to what the waiting game for an NHL prospect is like, but it’s a game they are more than willing to play because the reward is worth the wait.

By Meg Tilley/Edmontonoilers.com


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