It's tempting to write that it has been a long road for Magnus Paajarvi. Tempting, until I catch myself and chuckle, realizing that he's only 21 years old. It hasn't been a long road at all. It has been a perfectly normal evolution of a young player, complete with the peaks and valleys that virtually every professional hockey player has a diary full of.
The issue is context. Coming into the NHL with a crop of players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the bar for expectations was set quite high. Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins have already been nominated for major NHL awards, while Hall has posted 121 points in his first 152 games. The path to consistent impact has been a little bit more rocky for Paajarvi but, again, he's only 21.
Last season was a tough one for Magnus who scored just two goals in 41 NHL games and spent almost as much time in Oklahoma City as he did in Edmonton. "Mentally it wasn't that good for me," Paajarvi admits. "But, I gained a lot from that. It was huge for me to get a setback and really realize what I need to do."
What he needed to do was add to his game. In a conversation earlier this season, Magnus let me know that he appreciated my decision to phrase the progression as "adding" instead of "changing". There's absolutely no doubt that he's becoming stronger defensively, a better penalty killer and more willing to drive the blue paint and corners in the offensive zone. But, equally, there's no doubt that he still envisions himself as a highly skilled offensive player, and he wants to be relied upon to score goals.
"I don't want to lose my ability to score or my offensive qualities," he explains. "But, adding some stuff to my game and helping defensively has really gained a lot for me and for the team, too. I've been helping the team a lot, I think."
Indeed, he has. The team has looked very different in their last five outings and have put together a nice enough run to keep themselves in the playoff hunt. The turnaround has a lot to do with a group decision to simplify their game and a lot to do with the re-addition of Shawn Horcoff to the lineup, providing much-needed depth through the centre ice position. But, I'll propose here that Magnus Paajarvi's play deserves a sizable amount of credit, too, given how the balance of the forward units looks as good now as it has in years.
It started in Columbus on February 10th when Paajarvi scored a shorthanded goal that counted as the game winner. A few nights later, Paajarvi was a late addition to the lineup in a game against Colorado, and he'd go on to score the winner in that one, too. He sat out a couple of games after that stretch, but has played the last nine consecutively and hasn't given the coaching staff any reason to take him out. On the contrary, he's got four goals and six points over that stretch, and for the first time this season he cracked 20 minutes of ice time on Wednesday against San Jose.
"Personal success comes second, obviously, but I've been working for it and it has come lately," says Paajarvi. He scored a beautiful goal against Colorado that was generated by his speed and a desire to drive to the net, instead of curling around the net and looking for a pass as we saw so often last season. He did the same thing against Detroit and only a dynamic save by Jimmy Howard kept the puck out. It's a new mentality for the big Swede, developing the willingness and the courage to use his speed and size to intimidate.
"Every time I have that situation, I want to drive the net," he says. "I've been mentally better at that and I really get going for that every time. I know I have the speed and the size, it's more of the mental part."
For me, that's understandable. Coming from a totally different game overseas, a young player is obviously going to have to adjust to be successful on a smaller ice surface in a more physical setting in North America. That it took a little bit of time to click doesn't seem like a big deal, though it certainly seemed to be at the time, again given the context of how well the other young players were producing. The willingness to sacrifice, the courage to take the punishment required to battle in the corners or in front of the net, that's not easy.
For Paajarvi, the coaxing from the coaching staff and the trial and error in game situations eventually led to a conclusion. When he's got the puck in the neutral zone and he can pick up some speed, he's going to challenge defensemen. His message for them?
"Either take a penalty or let me go," he smiles.
He's driving the net more, battling in front of the net on the powerplay, penalty killing a little bit and seems to have a pretty good chemistry with Sam Gagner, who continues to be on fire. He's playing the type of hockey that the Oilers imagined he could when they drafted him 10th overall in 2009, and has put it together with consistency over the last month and a half. I see this very much like the situation midway through last year where Jeff Petry's game hit a tipping point and exploded, solidifying his role in the future plans of the team. Right now, Paajarvi is doing the exact same thing.
Dan Tencer is the host of 630 CHED's Inside Sports which can be heard weeknights from 6 to 9 pm.