Under-the-radar Blackhawks forward Khaira eager for opportunity

The Blackhawks, like all teams, have difficult decisions to make when it comes to their restricted free agents.

Some - like Brandon Hagel and Alex Nylander - end up getting offers. Others - like David Kampf, Pius Suter and Vinnie Hinostroza - wind up searching for new homes.

When free agency opens, a massive game of musical chairs begins for many of these under-the-radar players as general managers inspect other teams' castoffs to find the best fits.

Such was the case when it came to the Hawks and Jujhar Khaira, a relatively unknown forward on Edmonton. Rather than qualifying him at $1.3 million, the Oilers let Khaira walk.

So the Blackhawks pounced, inking the soon-to-be 27-year-old to a two-year deal that carries a $975,000 cap hit.

"They seemed very interested," said Khaira, who was pleased that several teams reached out to his agent. "I wanted the opportunity and I think I have that with (this) organization."

Khaira was a late bloomer, but he began popping up on scouts' radars after going through a growth spurt in high school.

Now 6-foot-4, 212 pounds, Khaira has carved out a role as a hard-hitting defensive forward. After seeing spot duty for a couple of seasons, Khaira scored 11 goals in 69 games for the Oilers in 2017-18. He's added 12 goals in 164 games since while averaging about 12½ minutes. He's also averaged 2.3 hits over the last four seasons, or 189 per 82-games.

Khaira's parents immigrated to Canada when he was about 5. He credits them - as well as his grandparents - for instilling a work ethic that sticks with him to this day. Khaira's dad is a gravel truck driver, while his mom is a speech language pathologist.

"They were fantastic with us," said Khaira, who has two brothers. "They gave us opportunities to play every sport we wanted to, and hockey was one that I landed on. Like any hockey parent (they had to go to) early-morning practices, the practices after school, the games - they were just busy days (and) busy weekends.

"It was definitely something, reflecting back on, that I'm very thankful for. It's amazing what they did for us."

Competition figures to be fierce in the bottom six on the Hawks next season. Khaira will fight for playing time with guys like Ryan Carpenter, Philipp Kurashev, Adam Gaudette, Nylander and Hagel.

His style differs from many of them, however, so don't be surprised if he's in the lineup more often than not.

"There's a lot of high talent and skill," Khaira said. "I think I can bring a hard-nosed game out there. That's going to be an asset for sure."

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