Jujhar Khaira made it into ten games with the Oilers in the 2016-17 season, and is the first player being profiled in our Top 25 series who’s likely to spend the majority of the 2017-18 season in the NHL. That fact is probably the main reason he’s being ranked this high. My skepticism regarding the value he’ll provide above a replacement level player is the main reason he isn’t ranked even higher.
Let’s start with the positives. Why is Khaira likely to play in the NHL this season? I think we need to acknowledge his structural advantages. Khaira is one of nine forwards on a one-way deal, which gives the Oilers a financial incentive to keep Khaira in the NHL ahead of other players on the fringes of the roster like Ty Rattie and Brad Malone. He’s also been in the organization for some time, which means that he’s both familiar to the coaching staff and to the rigours of professional hockey, which gives him an advantage over players like Kailer Yamamoto and Joseph Gambardella.
The familiarity to the coaching staff is particularly beneficial because it means that Khaira already has an excellent idea of what the coaches expect of him and he can tailor his game to meeting those expectations. When Khaira was called up in January to replace Anton Lander (who was sent down at the same time), McLellan had this to say about the change:
“[We’re looking for] pace, speed. I thought last night that the pace San Jose played with throughout their lineup, especially early in the game, was better than ours... Pace for the third and fourth lines, we’re looking for that and hopefully JJ can give that to us.”
A few days later Khaira scored his first NHL goal in a 3-1 Oilers’ win and Todd McLellan commented on what he liked about Khaira’s game:
“[Khaira provides] some size that moves; he has a quickness to the puck; he protects it well... We’re slowly finding out [what kind of player he might become]... He has size, he has a pretty good mind, he can play centre or wing, he gets around the ice surface pretty good, we know he’s got an element of toughness as well. So there’s a lot of attributes that he brings to the table and if he just keeps developing them he has an opportunity at a future.”
That’s a pretty clear indication of what’s expected, and some optimism about Khaira’s ability to deliver both in the present and in the future.
So what’s not to like? Well, shortly after scoring that first NHL goal, Khaira was sidelined with an injury and he struggled to get back into the lineup after his return. By the end of the season Khaira had played just 10 NHL games after seeing action in 15 games the year before.
Furthermore, Khaira’s offense has always been questionable. He has just three points in his twenty-five career NHL games, and that pace will need to improve if he’s going to stick. His AHL offense doesn’t suggest that’s something we should absolutely expect. He’s never been dominant offensively at that level, posting his best season last year with 20 points in 27 games, a nice improvement on the 27 points in 49 games he posted the year before. These totals clearly aren’t terrible, but they also don’t indicate that the NHL offense he’s posted so far should be seen as artificially low.
And offense isn’t the only concern. It’s my view that a fourth line player who hasn’t shown the ability to play up in the lineup needs to be able to do some other things well, things like killing penalties or taking faceoffs. Anton Lander did these things well and it helped him stay in the NHL for a lot longer than he otherwise would have (Lander’s one of just 31 players since the 1994-95 season to have played in at least 200 NHL games while scoring less than 0.2 points per game and accruing less than 0.5 penalty minutes per game). It’s possible that Khaira will do these things well too, but he certainly hasn’t proven it yet. Khaira has taken just 19 faceoffs so far in his career (he won 7) and has played a total of 0:00 on the penalty kill, and while that doesn’t mean he’ll be poor in those disciplines, I’m not prepared to assume he’ll be good at them either.
If Khaira was well-established as a fourth line centre with some room to grow at this point in his career I’d be more comfortable ranking him this high or higher. But that’s not the case. Instead, it looks to me like becoming an every day fourth line centre (or winger) would be pretty close to Khaira hitting his ceiling. Will he make it by the time his new two-year deal is done? It certainly seems like he’ll at least be given a chance.