The Edmonton Oilers have 33 games remaining. They are 12 points out of the playoffs. Playoff hockey seems unlikely, again, but there is still a lot on the line for management, coaches and players within the Oilers organization.
“They should tank,” is a refrain no one should utter. Losers tank, and if an organization encourages losing I expect them to remain losers for years to come. The Oilers have 12 players who are 25 years old or younger, and losing should never become acceptable for this group.
Many of the Oilers are still learning how to be successful in the NHL. Every practice and game is a new opportunity to improve and the final 33 games should be used as opportunities to get better, not accept losing or get worse.
Jujhar Khaira is still finding his groove in the NHL. He is 23 years young, he’s only played 61 NHL games, but he’s having a solid first full season with nine goals and 18 points in 36 games. He’s excited about the final 33 games and he’s even more excited about the possibility of becoming an NHL centre.
Khaira was a centre in junior, NCAA and in the AHL, and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the IR, Khaira is getting an opportunity to play centre. His face lit up when we discussed his move to the middle.
“I love it. I don’t mind playing wing, but as a centre I get to skate more. I like having the puck when I’m coming out of the zone. I’m not flat-footed as much and I like supporting the puck,” smiled Khaira.
Tonight and every game is a chance for Khaira to impress Todd McLellan and show him he can be an effective centre. He knows it won’t be easy, especially the defensive responsibilities.
“Guys in this league are so skilled and so much better than players in the American Hockey League. Down there if you are late to an assignment, or you lose your man it isn’t guaranteed in the back of the net, but up here (NHL) if you get careless for a bit, and I’ve experienced it firsthand, the puck is in the net. It is a big challenge, but I’m excited about it, because I feel confident playing centre,” explained Khaira.
Khaira is a prime example of how the average developmental curve looks. The elite players can jump right in at 18, 19 or 20 and contribute right away, but the majority of NHL players need more time to find their comfort zone. Often their professional development occurs in the AHL, they get a taste of the NHL with a few games, and then by 22 or 23, and sometimes even older, they are ready to become a regular NHL player.
Last season Khaira was injured and only played 27 games in the AHL and ten in the NHL. At training camp he didn’t have a spot in the lineup. Some were unsure he’d even make the team, but he played well in the preseason and earned a spot. He struggled in the first few games, and then was sat out, but when he returned to the lineup he looked like the same player in preseason: confident, assertive and productive.
He’s produced some solid numbers in a bottom six role, playing exclusively at even strength and on the penalty kill. He has eight EV goals, tied for fifth on the Oilers, and only five behind team leader Patrick Maroon. Khaira has shown signs he could be not only a regular NHL player, but also someone who provides some points.
“From the start of the season to now it has been a nice climb for me. I feel more confident with the puck. I have confidence in myself, just bringing the puck out of the zone and doing things with the puck I wouldn’t have done at the start of the year.
“My goal heading into camp was to just make the team. I wanted to be a guy who could play in the top nine, produce and be held accountable for his mistakes. I believe I can help us, and I want to keep improving,” continued Khaira.
Khaira isn’t listed as a rookie, but this is basically his first NHL season. It is a big learning curve, but he’s progressing nicely. Outside of the added defensive responsibility of playing centre again, he’s also in a position to produce some offence playing with Milan Lucic and Jesse Puljujarvi.
I like him as a centre. He has the size, is a good skater, has a good shot and he can make plays. He can use the final 33 games as an audition to prove to the organization he could be a solid third line centre.
I understand the frustration of some fans who feel the season is over, but for Khaira and many other young Oilers, these final two months offer an opportunity to improve and establish themselves as an every day NHLer.
We could see Caggiula and Slepyshev switch spots and like last game versus Calgary. If the Oilers don’t show much life early, McLellan won’t hesitate to switch up the lines. It worked for the second half of the Calgary game.
The D pairs aren’t set in stone either. I wouldn’t read too much into them. They just need more D-men to find some consistency. Montoya makes his first start for the Oilers, as Cam Talbot is out with the flu. McLellan said he expects Talbot to be ready for Monday’s game versus Tampa Bay. Laurent Brossoit will be the backup. Montoya is now a goalie who doesn’t talk on game day. I’ve never understood this mindset. Can someone explain to me how a three or four minute interview at 11 a.m. can interrupt his preparation for a start eight hours later? It really has nothing to do with preparation. It is a superstition, nothing more.
Nathan MacKinnon will be out two-four weeks according to head coach Jared Bedner. The Avs were hoping it would be shorter, but MacKinnon has a shoulder sprain I’m told. That is a massive blow to their playoff chances. With Kerfoot on the top line, and Jost on the second line, Soderberg is their only veteran centre in the top-nine and might be asked to contain McDavid. The McDavid line should be able to create a lot tonight, regardless of which line they face. Johnson and Zadorov will be out against them as often as possible, but the lack of a dominant centre will make it difficult for the Avs to contain McDavid.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers have a sluggish start, but rebound and defeat the Avs 4-2. Avs lose their fourth in a row after winning ten straight games.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Mike Cammalleri scores. He has 14 goals and 29 points in 34 career games versus the Avalanche.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Avs have had 4+ powerplays in 27 games and had three power plays in 11 other games. In 49 games played, only 11 times have they had two or fewer power plays. The Oilers have had 4+ powerplays only nine times this season. They’ve had three power plays in 16 games and in 24 of their 49 games they’ve had two powerplays or fewer. The Oilers get four power plays for only the 10th time this season. They score a home PP goal for the first time in seven games, and only the third time in their last 15 home games.
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Recently by Jason Gregor:
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Source: Jason Gregor, Verified Twitter Account, 1/25/2018, 1:30pm MST