In a season that’s produced far more disappointment than success for the Edmonton Oilers, and with too many players under-achieving and failing to meet expectations set a year ago, it’s been a lot of fun watching Jujhar Khaira seize an opportunity from the rubble of what we’ve witnessed and make the most of it.
Instead of sulking or folding after being a healthy scratch in 10 of the Oilers’ first 16 games this season and having this campaign go sideways, Khaira taken the opportunity he’s had since then and run with it like he stole something. We saw more of that Wednesday in a 5-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings at Staples Center. Khaira found a way to make his mark, and leave his mark, by riding to the rescue of teammate Jesse Puljujarvi after a hit by Christian Folin. You can see that here.
I’m not sure, as I Tweeted last night, that the hit on Puljujarvi by Folin warranted the whupping that Khaira dished out – I saw it as a clean hit with maybe a bit of stick in the ribs for good measure – but that’s not the point. Khaira didn’t like it and rolled in to take care of business. In doing so, the big forward out of Surrey, B.C. earned a little more respect from his teammates and staked out a little more turf for himself in trying to prove to coach Todd McLellan he belongs.
Outside of the progress we’ve seen from Darnell Nurse this season, I can’t think of anybody who has come as far as fast as Khaira has to this point. In an era when, in my opinion, some young players expect to be given an opportunity by the coach rather than reaching out and grabbing it, Khaira is doing exactly that. That says a lot about him, given how the season began.
PUT ME IN
One of the most difficult things for young players to do is figure out what it takes to stay in an NHL line-up once an opportunity presents itself. Are they willing and capable of stepping outside their comfort zone, to become something other than what they were in junior, college or the minors, to provide their team what it needs? Are they willing to do, and work on, aspects of their game that don’t come easily? It can be hit and miss, and the window of opportunity only stays open so long.
Khaira, 23, has had a few cracks at Edmonton’s line-up since being drafted 63rd overall in 2012. He got into 15 games in 2015-16. Last season he played just 10. Then, all those healthy scratches to start this season. Now, with 39 NHL games under his belt this season and 64 overall, Khaira looks like an NHL player. Where he fits in, exactly, we don’t know yet, but he’s giving McLellan no choice but to keep penciling him in. Khaira is big. He can skate. He can score a little bit. He’ll hit. He’ll fight. Over to you, coach.
“You come into the season with a goal of just making the team, whether you play or sit,” Khaira said in an interview with Post Media Saturday. “And moving forward throughout the season, there are little goals that you want to reach. Coming in, I wanted to be a guy who played in the top nine, someone who can produce and be held accountable for his mistakes. I want to be one of the guys who is a reliable player on this team.”
I’ve lost track over all the years I’ve watched hockey of how many kids, many of them more naturally talented than Khaira, who never did figure things out and find a role, find a foothold. Others figured out what it took, but weren’t willing to put in the work. “I didn’t get a chance.” There is always an opportunity for young players who reach out and grab it and refuse to let go rather than wait for it to come to them. I’m enjoying watching Khaira tighten his grip.
For all the talk about starting a playoff push on this three-game swing through California, it was the same old, same old for the Oilers against the Kings, who beat them in for fun in L.A. When Kyle Clifford sifted a puck past Cam Talbot 1:10 into the game, it marked the ninth time this season that the Oilers have given up a goal on the first shot of the game.
It was also the 32nd time through 52 games the Oilers have allowed the first goal of the game. While that made for some drama after Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid scored to tie it 2-2, there’s no percentage in chasing the game like that. The Oilers are 9-21-2 when giving up the first goal.
CHEER THEM ON
The latest edition of the World’s Longest Hockey game starts Friday at Brent Saik’s acreage, best known as Saiker’s Acres. If you’ve never been, I’d urge you to stop by and have a look between now and Feb. 19. You can go any time of day or night to watch the 40 participants taking part to raise money for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Every one of us, or somebody we know, has a stake in this game. Cheer them on. Donate if you can.
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