|Magnus Paajarvi has recorded only one assist in 16 games this season (Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club).
It was a lengthy conversation a couple of days ago between yours truly, Edmonton Journal scribe Jim Matheson and Oilers forward Magnus Paajarvi
, when the latter chuckled, "some of the guys mentioned to me that it's called sophomore year or something like that."
The phrase he was looking for was 'jinx' or 'slump' as he has posted just one assist in 16 games to start his second NHL season. Paajarvi admits to being bothered by the lack of numbers, but says dwelling on the lack of scoreboard production isn't the way to go about fixing it. "Right now I'm not focusing on scoring goals," he told explained. "I'm just trying to play the best hockey that I can and if I just focus on goals, it's not going to end up well. I gotta focus on the other things first."
When I hopped on the phone to ask head coach Tom Renney about the things that Magnus ought to be working on to find his way out of the hole, the Oilers bench boss repeatedly used the phrase "assert himself". That's the diplomatic way of telling a player to stop being afraid to go into the corners and to the front of the net. "He's got size, he can skate, he's got strength," Renney counted. "He's one of those kids that can really push a team back and intimidate you with his speed, and we need him to do those things. He's also got to go to the battle areas, go to the blue paint and get to loose pucks first. He should be winning those loose puck races."
The critique comes as no shock to the big Swede, who was his usual humble and introspective self during the conversation with me and Matty. Many times on my radio show over the last couple of weeks, I've griped about the lack of offensive opportunity and ice time for Paajarvi during the first quarter of the season, suggesting that maybe a couple spoonfuls of gravy would be a nice start to busting the slump.
Magnus wasn't willing to indulge those thoughts when I spoke with him.
"You deserve your ice time," Paajarvi riffed. "Tom is really good at that. He notices right away when you're hot and then you get to play. That's what I really like about him. You get to play when you deserve it. Of course I want to play on the powerplay, but you have to work hard to get there. Right now I'm not as effective, so I have to work hard to get there. I'm sure that once I deserve it, I'll get it."
No doubt, Paajarvi has all the attributes to make that happen. He's also got a tremendous dedication and work ethic, which makes the slump even more frustrating. I have it on good authority that Paajarvi came into camp in the best shape of all the returning players, following a rigorous off-season training regimen. Many days during the season Paajarvi will be one of the last players on the ice at the end of practice. So, why isn't all the hard work translating?
"I've seen it happen a number of times," Tom Renney says of players who make the jump from Europe to the NHL. "This is not at all unique. As a matter of fact, I would suggest that, with the odd exception, this probably happens more often than not. It's a big jump. It's a very big jump. There's a lot to swallow there and digest."
Renney says that everything from the change in size of ice surface to different rules to increased levels of physical contact can throw a player for a loop. Not to mention life in a foreign country. On that note, though it's tough to do considering the hype that surrounded the arrival of this player, we must note that he's less than 100 games into his NHL career.
"There aren't too many players that nail it in the first year or two of there careers," Tom Renney cautions. "When Maggie nails it, he's going to nail it hard. He has a ton of stuff going for him and we're happy to have him as an Oiler so we can reap the benefit of that in the long run."
The long run, of course, is the most important focus here. Frustrating as it might be that one of the future stars of this young team is struggling right mightily right now, the 2011-12 season isn't the end goal for Paajarvi or the club.
Steps need to be taken, to be sure, and more chalk must be used in the "W" column on the standings sheet, but, with apologies for the cliche, Rome wasn't built in a day. Given that understanding, it's entirely possible that the Oilers will opt to send Paajarvi on a mission to regain his confidence down in Oklahoma City of the AHL.
There, perhaps, Paajarvi could kickstart his assertiveness, put some points on the board, and come back to the big club prepared to play a larger role.
"Of course I would," Tom Renney responded when I asked him if he would consider such a move. "I would look at anything I could do to help a player feel confident so that he can apply himself accordingly. There's a point in time, maybe, where you've hit the wall with the big team. You go down and play significant minutes and play a significant role on the team."
Sending a blue chip talent with a bright future ahead of him down to the AHL wouldn't be a new experience for coach Renney, who used the tactic with great success in his previous job. "When I was in New York I sent Ryan Callahan to Hartford 2 different times and now he's the captain of the New York Rangers," Renney recalled. "So, it's not purgatory. It's very much a part of the growth of a player if, in fact, that's what they need."
Magnus, understandably, isn't thrilled by the prospect of a demotion. "That's totally up to them," he offered. "I want to be up here, I feel like I learn every day here. I want to stay here for sure and I'm going to do everything in my power to stay here."
Paajarvi believes that his continued hard work and focus will, sooner than later, turn things around. "I'm in a slump right now for sure, but I'm working as hard as I can," he said. "I really want to be a big part of this team and I'm going to do whatever it takes to get there. You just have to keep working to get all the little edges on your side, and then the points will follow."
The fact remains, however, that until the ninth overall pick from the 2009 NHL Entry Draft finds a way to sharpen his game, he won't be handed any chances that he doesn't deserve.
"We are going to learn by winning this year," Tom Renney told me. "That's our mantra. And, in order to be a part of that, you have to bring certain things to the table. He needs to understand that beyond just getting the opportunity to play yourself out of difficulty, you've to to earn that privilege. I think that's fair, and as we grow our team, it doesn't hurt for everybody to understand that new standard."
But, at the end of the day, despite clearly identifiable flaws and struggles right now, Renney knows what outcome he's betting on. "Maggie is working his heart out," says Renney. "He's a very coachable fella. I'm lucky to be on the inside, because the masses don't know that. When he's telling me that he knows he has to be better, he's half way to correcting the issue already."Author: Dan Tencer