At this time two years ago, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi pretty much had the Edmonton Oilers marquee all to themselves. They were marketed as the future faces of the franchise.
Hall, Eberle and Paajarvi made public appearances together. They seemed to be some sort of a package deal. You couldn’t mention one without the other two. Virtually every reference to a bright future for the Oilers that included the names Hall and Eberle included Paajarvi.
It was much the same a year ago, with the added buzz over the arrival of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hall was coming off an injury-shortened rookie campaign in which he scored 22-20-42. Eberle lived up to his press clippings with 18-25-43 despite playing only 69 games. Paajarvi tallied 15-19-34, which was right in line with the expectations that saw him taken 10th overall in 2009.
But instead of Nugent-Hopkins joining the other three on the marquee, he’d soon bump Paajarvi right off it, helped in large part by the big Swede’s early season struggles. By mid-season, Paajarvi was ticketed to Oklahoma of the AHL and Nugent-Hopkins, with good reason, was being touted as a Calder Trophy candidate. The rest, we know.
THE ROAD BACK
While Hall and Eberle signed big-ticket contract extensions this off-season after brilliant sophomore campaigns with the Oilers, Paajarvi, still only 21, is faced with working his way back up the organizational depth charts and back into the hearts of Edmonton fans.
That journey continues Friday when the OKC Barons open their AHL season against Lake Erie, a game that will see Paajarvi playing left wing on coach Todd Nelson’s top line alongside Nugent-Hopkins at pivot and Eberle on the right side. There are worse places to start.
"Playing-wise, I’m not that different. Mentally, for sure, I am," Paajarvi said. "I feel a lot more calm, a lot more safe and secure, I would say. Obviously, it was a tough year last year. It didn’t go as I wanted.
"It was the first year in my career that I had a hard time through the whole season, except for the last half with the playoffs down here. That gave me a boost."
After managing 25 points in 34 regular season games with Oklahoma City, Paajarvi closed a disappointing campaign with 11 points in 14 post-season outings. That, as Paajarvi said, qualifies as a "boost."
The question now: can Paajarvi re-establish himself with the organization and work his way back into the same conversations where the names Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are mentioned? This, we do not know.
My take is pretty straightforward – I don’t think Paajarvi projects as the kind of game-breaker Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins already are. I don’t see him living up to the package deal hype we saw two years ago. He’s not a franchise player, a cornerstone guy.
At the same time, I don’t see any reason why Paajarvi can’t put his struggles of last season behind him and be about as productive as he was as a rookie once the NHL gets back in business – he looks to me like a player capable of 30-40 points a season, a third-liner who can bounce up to top-six duty in a pinch.
That won’t get Paajarvi near top-billing on a suddenly crowded marquee with Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and (speaking of hype and expectation) Nail Yakupov, but it will make him part of the mix Oiler fans have been waiting on.
We haven’t seen the last of what’s-his-name?
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.