Blackhawks expect new signing Jujhar Khaira to provide needed physicality
Khaira had 151 hits in only 40 games with the Oilers last season, ranking eighth among all NHL forwards.
Employing Nikita Zadorov last season gave the Blackhawks one of the NHL’s most intimidating physical presences, but they weren’t that physical overall.
The Hawks finished 21st with 1,214 hits. Zadorov ranked seventh with 190, but the next-heaviest-hitting Hawk — Connor Murphy with 102 — ranked 66th. And the forward corps contributed little. Ryan Carpenter led that group with 78 hits, followed by Alex DeBrincat with 70.
The Hawks hope unheralded free-agent signing Jujhar Khaira changes that dynamic this season.
“There’s a lot of high talent and skill [on this team],” Khaira said last week. “I can bring a hard-nosed game out there. That’s going to be an asset, for sure.”
The 6-4, 212-pound Khaira, a native of British Columbia but only the third NHL player of Punjabi descent, proved more than willing to use that hefty frame the last four years with the Oilers.
He has been credited with 587 hits in 258 career games, and his rate keeps increasing. He racked up 151 in only 40 games last season, good for 14th in the league overall and eighth among forwards.
“[Khaira] brings another element of size and strength to our team,” general manager Stan Bowman said Monday. “He has some versatility. He was used as a centerman and a winger. We like his approach to the game. He plays competitively. [He provides] an element we don’t have a lot of, so we’re trying to bring some of that in to blend with some of the highly skilled players up front.”
The Hawks were only able to sign Khaira because the Oilers didn’t give the soon-to-be 27-year-old a qualifying offer, letting him become unrestricted. That decision was part of an altogether strange offseason of contradictory decisions in Edmonton, although Khaira, who scored only three goals last season, wasn’t surprised by how it played out.
“It was one of those things that I thought there was a chance [the Oilers wouldn’t qualify me], but it was out of my control at that point,” he said. “That’s stuff that happens in this game.”
The value of physicality — especially physical players who don’t contribute much on offense — is up for debate in modern hockey. The Avalanche, Hurricanes and Maple Leafs in recent seasons have committed wholeheartedly to speed and skill and largely eschewed grinders.
But that’s an argument for another day. The Hawks clearly believe investing in size and physicality can help them.
And they followed that mentality in the draft, selecting four young prospects who exceed 6-4 and 200 pounds — including 6-7, 236-pound defenseman Taige Harding.
“You’re always looking to get size,” Hawks scouting director Mark Kelley said. “When we watch the league [and] how it’s going now, the big defenders are having a lot of success — or, I should say, the teams that have the big defenders are having a lot of success. . . . To answer your question, size was attractive to us.”
At the NHL level, Riley Stillman and Jake McCabe will compensate, hit-wise, for Zadorov’s departure among the defensemen. And Khaira and Mike Hardman, who had 38 hits in eight games late last season after signing out of Boston College, should fill that niche among the forwards.
“[The Hawks] seemed very interested,” Khaira said. “[And I just wanted the] opportunity.’’