PITTSBURGH - Michigan Tech's 2011-12 hockey turnaround is already starting to reap benefits on the recruiting trail. Two of the seven 2012-13 Huskies' recruits were drafted by NHL teams Saturday, marking the first time two Tech players were drafted in the same year since 1998.
Jujhar Khaira, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward from Surrey, British Columbia, was selected in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft, 63rd overall, by the Edmonton Oilers.
Jamie Phillips, a 6-foot-2, 175-pound goaltender from Caledonia, Ontario, was taken in the seventh round, 190th overall, by the Winnipeg Jets.
"We're obviously recruiting some talented people and players that the NHL feels are kids that are going to play down the road," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "It's a good sign and speaks volumes about where we're headed."
Khaira, who scored 29 goals and added 50 assists in 54 games for the British Columbia Hockey League's Prince George Spruce Kings last season, was the highest ranked BCHL skater (74th) on the NHL Central Scouting list and is the highest-picked Tech player since Dave Reierson (No. 29) in 1982.
"I can't describe the feeling right now. It's great," Khaira said in a post-draft interview on the Oilers' website. He was in Pittsburgh for the draft Saturday and was flying back to Vancouver Sunday and could not be reached by Gazette press time.
"The interviews at the combine, I had a really good feeling, really good interview with them," Khaira added. "I'm really glad that Edmonton did pick me."
And so is Pearson.
Initial concerns about Khaira being forced to change his mind about the college route in favor of major juniors, where the Western Hockey League's Everett Silvertips have his rights, were eased when Edmonton drafted the 18-year-old.
"I'm not concerned. I met with him and his family about a week ago in Vancouver. I told him he doesn't have to give up his dream of playing in the NHL by coming to Michigan Tech," Pearson said.
Pearson knows several people in the Oilers organization (GM Steve Tambellini, whose son Jeff played under Pearson at the University of Michigan; head scout Stu MacGregor; and Oiler scout and Michigan Tech alum Chris Cichocki) and he feels comfortable the Oilers will be fine with Khaira taking the college route.
"I don't think it's going to matter. I'm always of the belief that if you've chosen a path, take that path," MacGregor said in the Oilers' official release about Khaira. "He's going to need a couple years no matter what. I don't think he's even grown into his body yet. He'll continue to develop physically."
Pearson agreed, saying that both Khaira and Phillips would both probably need three to four years to fully develop.
"They can leave anytime, that's the scary part. You're just never sure and that's what makes it a little more difficult in recruiting this day and age," Pearson said. "My thing is I just don't want them to leave until they're ready. I'll be happy to drive them to the airport, but I want to make sure they're ready and I think they'll both be three-to-four year players to let their game mature."
Goaltenders tend to take longer to develop anyways, according to Pearson, and Phillips will have NHL veteran goalie coach Steve Shields to learn under at Michigan Tech.
"Steve is invaluable and obviously that was a selling point to our goalies," Pearson said. "Hats off to Jamie. What I really like about him is instead of sulking about being traded (to the Ontario Junior A Hockey League), he played well with Toronto, and had an outstanding playoffs."
The Jets' draftee was 4-4-2 with a .917 saves percentage in 11 games with the OJHL Toronto Jr. Canadiens last season after being traded from the BCHL's Powell River Kings (where Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Sean Maguire, No. 113 overall, was soaking up the playing time).
"With the way (Michigan Tech) was going with the program on the up and up, I knew it was a coaching staff I wanted to play with, players I wanted to play beside and a school I wanted to be at," Phillips said in a Gazette interview. "(The Jets) haven't said anything (about college vs. major juniors), but I'm going to go to Tech. I had the opportunity to go to major juniors when I was younger and I decided not to. Tech committed to me and I'm completely committed to them."
Phillips, who said despite the draft listing him at 6-foot-2, he's actually almost 6-foot-4, is eager to come to a school that just lost two goaltenders to graduation (Josh Robinson and Corson Cramer), but with solid competition in senior Kevin Genoe and fellow recruit Pheonix Copley.
"I hope to have a good development year and take it year by year," Phillips said. "Whichever goalie is playing the best is going to get the games, and I would not have it any other way."
Ultimately, both players realize they'll have to develop during their time at Tech to fulfill their NHL potential, and Pearson, whose former Wolverines boast more current NHL players than any other college (23), will make sure that message is clear.
"Once you get drafted you don't walk out of the draft and all of a sudden you're a better player or better person. It just signifies that someone thinks you'll have a chance to be an NHL player," Pearson said. "What you have to do now is prove them right that they were right in drafting you. You have something to prove and it just starts now."