EDMONTON, AB - A year ago, Jujhar Khaira was toiling away in the Oilers farm system, playing a fourth-line role with the Oklahoma City Barons.
That’s not out of the ordinary. Young players are given less minutes to acclimate to the American Hockey League before they get comfortable and work their way up into a bigger role. Through team injuries and call-ups, plus a lot of personal growth and development, the Oilers prospect worked his way up the depth chart.
With the Bakersfield Condors this season, Khaira was given top-six minutes before he was recalled to the Oilers. Injuries to the Edmonton lineup gave Khaira another opportunity. Back in a bottom six role for a few games, Khaira grew more comfortable until a shake-up of the lines in Edmonton’s 2-1 overtime victory over Dallas on Friday night gave him his best opportunity to date.
“It was fun, a lot of fun,” Khaira said. “They make plays consistently and I just try to create space and play smart for them and just try to get open. I got a couple chances with them and it was fun.”
On Saturday, Khaira was skating with those two skilled players at practice. It’s a new challenge for the 21-year-old forward, but one he’s enjoying.
“Just some of the passes they make. You don’t expect them to land on your tape but next thing you know they’re right there and you’ve got to think a lot quicker to make a play instead of just dumping it in all the time,” said Khaira. “It’s a line that needs to keep position and make plays and I’m trying my best to help them out.”
Lines change all the time and the Oilers will, eventually, get healthy. But Khaira getting opportunities like this is just more validation to the work of the Oilers development system. Players like Khaira, Iiro Pakarinen and even Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl, who began their seasons in Bakersfield, have come up and filled roles.
“They’ve done a tremendous job of coming up and pinch hitting,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “We are deep into our farm team, into the Bakersfield group. Often when you go that deep, you’re bringing players up that can’t contribute yet. I think some of ours have come up and found ways to have impacts nightly. The good thing about that is… we’d like to continue to grow those players and have them push.”
Recalling a number of players by necessity and then having it work out well for the club falls in line with the philosophy regarding internal competition that the Oilers staff supports.
Photo by Ryan Hrycun
“Real early in the year we talked about pushing from underneath, and when that begins to happen your organization has a chance to grow,” said McLellan. “The longer JJ and Iiro and those types of players are here, the more we begin to believe in them as a staff and that’s real important. We feel good about putting them on the ice. So the more time they have here, the more they use it, the more confidence we have, the better opportunity they get. That’s how it works, and it’s been going fairly good for a number of them so far.”
Hall likes having the 6-foot-4, 229-pound winger on the other wing. It opens up space for him and Draisaitl.
“He’s shown well and he’s another guy that’s come up here and just kind of played his game. It’s translated pretty well. Big, strong guy that can skate well and has a knack for trying to make a play. Those guys are fun to play with,” said Hall.
The coaching staff sees these recent call-ups and their contributions as a benefit to the organization and Hall is right there with them. Hall knows Khaira was once a fourth-line guy in the AHL, but his development is a positive for the Oilers.
“It’s a good sign for our organization, having a player here improve like that,” said Hall. “Guys like him, Brandon Davidson and Klefbom, these are all really good signs for our team and organization that they’re going to the AHL, they’re getting quality coaching, they’re coming up here and they’re stepping in. It’s a good sign.”
Taylor Hall and Jujhar Khaira celebrate a goal against the Dallas Stars. Photo by Andy Devlin.
“It just shows the guys and the development down in the minor league,” echoed Davidson. “I think that it shows how well it can be done and Jujhar is a great example of that. He’s done a tremendous job the last couple of games and was rewarded last night with playing with Hallsy and more minutes too. It’s great to see a guy like that. I know how he feels and where he’s coming from. It makes it a little more special.”
The benefits of spending time in the AHL is not lost on Khaira, as it has helped prepare him for the opportunities he has today in the NHL.
“It’s great down there,” Khaira said. “I learned a lot down there, just from the coaches, watching video and all that. Getting an opportunity to play there was great. It helps with confidence for sure. You have a lot of time for practice down there to really emphasize what you need to work on. I think coming up here, I just wanted to bring what I learned from those coaches and just try to apply it to my game.”