Good enough simply isn’t good enough for a young prospect trying to earn a spot in the NHL. The rules are a little different for high picks, who have enough cachet to survive simply surviving, but for the majority of players trying to force their way into an NHL job it’s necessary to steal it from someone else and that typically requires more than passable play.
We’re still in early days, but Iiro Pakarinen looks like a player who might be able to deliver that.
First Two Games
Two games into his NHL career, Pakarinen has played a little under 14 minutes of total ice time. He’s been credited with three hits, which is actually a little on the low side; I recorded five in my notes against Boston alone and I wasn’t particularly tracking them. He’s fired the puck on net six times in that span. He also scored his first career goal.
After Friday’s game Pakarinen talked about how excited he was to score his first goal, how he was a little nervous in his first game but felt better against the Sabres, but he also mentioned that even when the Oilers were trailing he was extremely confident that Edmonton would get the win. Asked why, he offered a little insight into what points he prioritizes in a hockey game.
“We got a lot of pucks [on net and] our forecheck going on out there,” Pakarinen said. “I think that’s the thing: When you’ve got a lot of pucks to the net and a few hits and the forecheck going, that’s the thing when you’ve got your game going on.”
Are those clichés? Absolutely. But they’ve also been the foundations of Pakarinen’s game in the early going in Edmonton. He puts pucks on net. He gets in on the forecheck. He lands hits. It’s simple, but those are qualities the Oilers don’t always bring.
If he keeps doing those things, it’s going to be difficult to send him back to the minors when Taylor Hall gets back.
The Direct Competition
The Oilers have a pretty clearly defined top-12 forward group. Will Acton sat for ages in between games because there was nobody obvious to scratch; the top six wingers are all proven NHL veterans or Nail Yakupov, there aren’t any other credible options at centre and the “fourth” line of Matt Hendricks, Boyd Gordon and Jesse Joensuu has played so brilliantly it is tough to split it up.
The injury to Hall created an opening, and Dallas Eakins has shown his preferred method of handling it. Pakarinen is playing 6:45 per game despite being dressed on a scoring line; the coaching staff has done that mostly by double-shifting Yakupov in places. It’s a reasonable strategy, and it’s probably what we’ll see from the coach as long as there’s a big drop-off between the top five scoring line wingers and the sixth.
If the Oilers decide to keep Luke Gazdic and play him at times, it’s easy to imagine the coach using him the same way, spotting him for five minutes per night on a scoring line. That frees up the fourth line to keep doing their important defensive zone work, while at the same time limiting how much impact he has on the team’s offensive ability.
The question is whether it’s better to go with Gazdic or with someone like Pakarinen. Pakarinen hasn’t been a drain on his line when he’s on the ice; he has a clue in the defensive zone and his willingness to shoot the puck is extremely welcome. There’s a massive gap between the two players in that department: while it only took Pakarinen 13 minutes to fire his first six shots it took Gazdic 13 games last season.
At some point in the very near future Edmonton is going to need to decide whether it prefers to have a heavyweight on the roster or a guy like Pakarinen who just might be able to positively impact the game in other areas.
And that’s why Pakarinen can’t just play well in this stint if he’s going to win a job; he has to be very good to convinced Edmonton to give up their enforcer security blanket. If he’s just passable, it becomes much easier to keep Gazdic for fear that somewhere along the line he’ll be needed, particularly since Pakarinen doesn’t need to clear waivers to go back to the minors.