We here at Copper & Blue like to keep our readers informed regarding the prospects in the Oilers' system. After the team's performance in recent years, prospect watching has become a consistent part of the Oiler fan experience.
Every time we do our "Top 25 Under 25" there are always a couple of prospects that become a focal point of the series. I'd wager that in our current series (which began this week) one of those players will be Jujhar Khaira.
Khaira was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2012 NHL Draft. After playing his pre-draft season in the BCHL, he has spent this year in his first season with the Michigan Tech Huskies of the NCAA.
So, in an ongoing effort to inform our readers about the prospects in the Oilers' system, I was recently able to have a conversation with Khaira so he could shed a little light on his progression at the NCAA level and his NHL aspirations.
Here now, for your reading pleasure, is a transcript of my conversation with Jujhar Khaira:
(Author’s Note: I’d like to take a moment to personally thank Jujhar for answering my questions. He was just coming out of a team meeting that ran long during a road trip but was very willing to give his time to let our readers know more about him. His honesty and directness with regard to his self-evaluation was a nice surprise.)
The Copper & Blue: Before discussing hockey with you, how is school going? This is your first year in college after all.
Jujhar Khaira: Yes it is. It’s going well. It’s everything I expected. The teachers and professors here are pretty understanding of our hockey schedules and I’ve been getting good advice from the older guys and all that. It helps out a lot and everything has been going well.
C&B: Do you have an area of study that you are focused on already, or are you still taking some time to figure that out?
JK: Right now my major and most of the courses I’m taking are related to business management, but next year I think I might look into something new and find something that I’m really interested in.
C&B: Getting into the hockey side of things, how have you found the transition from playing 17 year-olds in the BCHL to playing guys in their early 20’s in the NCAA?
JK: I think the transition has gone well. At the beginning of the season it took a little while to adapt, particularly with regard to the speed of the game. Strength-wise I was fine, but coming up to this level, everybody is a lot faster so that was a big part of the way I needed to change my game. I had to learn to be smarter and try to be in the right area all the time and not wasting energy as well as improving my speed. I think that was the biggest thing. In Juniors, I was able to slow the game down because I was one of the bigger guys, but at this level there are guys who are both bigger and stronger, so…
C&B: Are you finding there seems to be a lot less space on the ice and that gaps are being closed on you much faster?
JK: Definitely at the beginning it felt like there was less space out there, but the more games I play the more comfortable I feel and I feel like I’m starting to find ways to give myself that little bit of extra space now.
C&B: You mentioned that physically you felt that your size and strength have held up well against the older and stronger players in the NCAA. You certainly already had some decent size at the time you were drafted, but do you feel you’re still able to use your size to your advantage at this new level?
JK: There was obviously a little bit of catch-up in that area as well, but certainly not as much as the speed of the game. I think that being a bigger guy, it has helped out, but at the same time, I did need to get used to playing against teams where more of the guys were so much bigger and stronger. Also the guys have so much more experience. Everybody in the league knows how to pin you up or take your time and space away.
C&B: Have you altered either your training regimen or your diet to try to help you compensate for the changes that you have needed to make to your game?
JK: Nothing about my diet has changed in that sense. I think for me it has involved a little bit of continuing to grow into my body and just getting used to the pace of the game the more games I play here.
C&B: One of your biggest strengths last year according to most scouting reports was your ability to win puck battles and go into the “tough areas” of the ice and come away with possession of the puck. Facing tougher competition this year, have you been able to maintain your success in that area?
JK: Uh, yeah, I’d say so. I think I’m pretty good in the corners and keeping the puck and winning battles or finding someone out in the slot, so yeah, I think that part of my game has held up especially well.
C&B: Looking at how you’ve been utilized this season, you’ve been playing centre most of the time. That position brings with it a lot of responsibilities without the puck. How would you evaluate yourself on face-offs so far for example?
JK: I wouldn’t say I’m doing great at draws yet, but I am working on that. The coaches are staying out for extra time with me giving me tips and just showing me tricks that they use or that they have picked up over the years. Slowly I feel it is getting better for sure.
C&B: What about the defensive aspects of the position? You mentioned previously that the speed was the biggest thing you’ve needed to adapt to and playing centre typically comes with responsibilities from goal-line to goal-line, do you find you're able to play the full 200 foot game already, or as a younger player, are your coaches easing you into things by having you cover the high slot in your own end of the ice?
JK: I’d say I’m playing pretty much end-to-end. There are obviously times where I’ve gotten caught flat footed or not moving my feet, but the coaching staff here have been great. They’ve been reminding me of my responsibilities and showing me videos of the times where I haven’t been doing what I should and I think slowly things are coming along. I’m back-checking hard and I’m finding my man in the defensive zone and not getting lost as much and not making myself do any unnecessary skating to burn my energy.
C&B: What kind of role have your coaches been putting you out there in at even strength? Are they getting you out there in mostly offensive situations as a first-year player or are they challenging you to take on some of the opposition’s top offensive talent?
JK: Five-on-five I think they’ve used me most often in an offensive role. Not being as strong on things like face-offs yet…
C&B: So a lot of offensive zone-starts?
JK: Yes, much more offensive-zone time as opposed to the defensive zone right now. With our coaching staff here, and Coach Pearson, we do match lines sometimes, but most of the time we try to just role lines and I think it has been working great for us. I think that basically when your line is up, you’re expected to do a job and you are expected to succeed at it.
C&B: Along those lines, I believe that your top five scorers are all currently first and second-year players, so I imagine there is a lot of responsibility to distribute among a team with so many young players in big roles?
JK: Yeah, our top five scorers are all Freshmen and Sophomores right now, but at the same time, a lot of the Seniors and Juniors are producing for us as well as doing a number of other things to help the first and second year guys get those opportunities.
C&B: Speaking of opportunities, it seems fairly obvious that you are getting some chances to spend some time on the powerplay seeing as four of your five goals this season have been scored with the man advantage, can you talk a bit about what kind of role you are being asked to fulfill on the powerplay?
JK: Yes, in the offensive zone on the powerplay I’m expected to try and obstruct the goalies vision and take his eyes away as well as pick up pucks in front of the net…
C&B: Sort of that Tomas Holmstrom role…
JK: haha, yeah, I’m not anywhere near as good at it as he was, but yeah, in terms of the role I’m playing it is pretty much that.
C&B: Have you been given any time on the PK yet?
JK: No, that’s primarily been the second year and older guys and the guys with a little more experience have usually been taking care of that for us and they do a great job at it.
C&B: For guys who try to bring a lot of physicality to their game like you do, one of the things that players can struggle with is that they can end up taking a lot of penalties. I admit to not having a chance to see you play very often, but from my research in preparation for our conversation, I noticed a distinct drop-off in your penalty minutes around the beginning of December. Was that a conscious change made by you and your coaches and if so, what have you done differently to avoid spending time in the box without sacrificing the physical style of your game?
JK: I think that is coming with maturity. At the beginning of the year I wasn’t really, I guess, as composed as I should have been. I was taking a number of stupid penalties pushing with guys after the whistles and just stuff like that that I shouldn’t have been doing. I was costing the team at that point. I was taking sometimes as many as two or three penalties in a game, which is obviously hard on the team and my teammates to have to be killing for that many minutes during a game when we could be playing even strength. Even from the standpoint of my own personal development, I wasn’t getting any better sitting in the box all the time, so I’ve been talking with my coaches and some of the other players and I think it is just coming with a bit of maturity. They’ve been explaining to me how to take care of things without doing it after the whistle and putting myself in obvious positions to take a penalty.
C&B: It certainly seems to have made a difference. As I said, around the beginning of December, it’s very noticeable that the frequency of your penalties began to drop pretty quickly…
Switching gears and getting into your relationship with the Oilers…what has your experience with them been like so far, and what was it like to experience your first pro development camp?
JK: It was a lot of fun. It was everything I had expected and more. The treatment we got from the team was great. It was really cool to be at Rexall Place and wearing Oilers gear and everything. I thought it was a lot of fun.
C&B: What is your interaction like with the team during the season? From previous conversations with other prospects, I know they tend to try and communicate with everyone occasionally during the year…
JK: I have talked to them a couple of times this year. Other than that we have self-evaluations we do every couple of weeks and, yeah, they watch our game tapes and break our games down and let us know what they think we need to work on and what they think we are doing well. Everything has been really positive throughout our interactions and they are just helping me learn and develop.
C&B: Seeing as this is your first year post-draft, have they given you any indication with regard to what kind of timeline they see for your development?
JK: They are just taking things a little bit at a time. They want to just see how I do at the college level and see how I develop. They are taking all of that stuff into consideration, but no, we haven’t really talked much about anything like that.
C&B: What about for you personally. Do you have any personal ambitions about your timeline for getting into pro hockey?
JK: I’m not really thinking about all of that. I’m just taking things game-by-game here and just trying to develop myself personally and accomplish as much as I can at the NCAA level. Whenever they think I’m ready, I think that’s fine with me, but I’m not thinking about any of that.
C&B: Final question for you, I mentioned Tomas Holmstrom before, and not to ask you to compare yourself to anyone like that who has enjoyed so much success at the NHL level, but from a stylistic standpoint, if you could compare yourself to someone currently in the NHL to give Copper & Blue readers a mental image of the kind of game your try to play, is there anyone you could name that you would compare the style of your game to?
JK: I would say, and I certainly don’t mean to compare myself to him in any way, but in terms of style I would probably say a guy like Eric Staal.
C&B: That’s a nice player to try and model your game after.
It was really a pleasant experience getting to talk to Jujhar about the progression of his game and the various challenges he is encountering as he steps up to a higher level of competition and how he has had to adapt to his new surroundings. I was struck by just how forthright he was in regard to some of his shortcomings and the mistakes that he has made as he continues to learn. That kind of humility will serve him well in terms of his ability to be coachable and apply new lessons from the various coaches he will encounter on his route to the NHL.
For those who enjoyed the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Jujhar Khaira and would like some additional insights from into his game from someone who has seen him play regularly this year, the excellent Jonathan McLeod of OilonWhyte.com recently posted an interview with Tim Braun of Tech Hockey Guide, a blog that covers the Michigan Tech Huskies closely.