When it comes to training camp roster decisions, getting direct information out of coaches is like pulling teeth.
Obviously a coach, including Dallas Stars head coach Lindy Ruff, is not going to say ahead of time which players will make the roster, which ones will be cut, and which ones fall in that yet-to-be-decided area in between.
What fans can do, however, is read between the lines. The players that get chosen to dress for the games, and how they're used inside them, can often offer hints as to what a coach is thinking about particular individuals.
In the case of defenceman Jamie Oleksiak, it looks like Ruff is doing quite a lot of thinking.
Out of Dallas' six preseason games this year, the 21 year-old Oleksiak dressed in five of them. For the sake of comparison, Kevin Connauton, Jyrki Jokipakka, and Patrik Nemeth, three other defencemen battling for spots on Dallas' blueline, only dressed for four games.
For one reason or another, Ruff and his staff certainly seemed like they're trying to get as good of a read as possible on the former 1st round draft choice.
These hints proved themselves to be telling on Wednesday morning, when the Stars announced their latest, and possibly final, round of roster cuts before the start of the regular season. Oleksiak's name wasn't one of them.
Over the past few weeks Oleksiak has quickly become one of the most polarizing players in the Stars' organization.Those five preseason games provided an excellent display of both the good and the bad about his current level of play, even flipping back and forth from shift to shift. Sometimes Oleksiak shows flashes of brilliance, using his gargantuan size to smother opposing forwards or using his deceptively quick mobility to join the offensive rush up ice but still get back to his own zone on time. Other times showcase the greener side of his game, with either a missed coverage assignment, a bad pass, or a lost puck battle that should have been won.
There was also the ill-advised decision to shove Florida Panthers forward Nick Bjugstad directly onto Kari Lehtonen, giving the team's number one goaltender a concussion, something that Stars fans are trying very hard to block from their minds.
But one thing is for sure with Oleksiak: he's getting there.
The big blueliner looked painfully out of his league when he made his NHL debut two years ago, dressing for 16 games in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He looked slightly better last season in seven appearances, but there were still too many mistakes to warrant him sticking around permanently. This preseason so far? Steps in the right direction compared to what was previously seen, even if he hasn't been perfect.
And, really, should one ever expect perfection out of a defenceman, especially one that's so young? For a defenceman Oleksiak's age, mistakes are an inevitability. They happen, the player learns from them, they move on.
Oleksiak's hardly been the only young defenceman that's made mistakes this preseason. John Klingberg, who came into camp riding a tidal wave of hype and some serious consideration that he would make the Dallas Stars straight out of camp, looked very raw in his two games. He finished with a combined -5 rating and was assigned to the AHL`s Texas Stars on Tuesday afternoon. Nemeth, who impressed everyone last spring in a late season call-up and dominant run en route to a Calder Cup championship, has looked equally shaky over the past two weeks. Cameron Gaunce, who was also somewhat in the mix for a roster spot coming into training camp, came and went without so much as a blip on the radar.
Yet, for some reason, Oleksiak has been on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of scorn from the fans. Is it because of the added expectations of his high draft placement? Is it because people want Oleksiak to become the next Derian Hatcher and destroy people with his size, even though that's never been his style? It's hard to say.
It's a shame, because Oleksiak played so much this preseason, and was dressed for Dallas' last game, their final dress rehearsal before the regular season begins on October 9th, because he's earned it...for the most part. Behind only the smooth Jokipakka, who's been exceeding all expectations throughout training camp and preseason, Oleksiak's been the second best of the young, bubble defencemen.
That's where all of this starts to get a little confusing right now: why did Jokipakka get sent down instead of Oleksiak?
The general consensus among most people that watched the Stars this preseason is that Jokipakka has looked the most NHL-ready out of the young defencemen. He's been active at both ends of the ice, and rarely made the wrong decision with the puck, showcasing a professional level of composure beyond his age. Even though Jokipakka might not start the season in Dallas he's still very much knocking on the door, so don't be surprised to see him dress for the Stars at some point this season.
So, why keep Oleksiak up instead? At the time of this writing both Ruff, along with general manager Jim Nill, have yet to say anything to the media about the decision, so we're left to speculate for the time being. That being said, there are a couple of reasons why it makes sense.
First, Brenden Dillon is still unsigned. Contract negotiations took an interesting turn last night, and there's still no concrete timeline as to when a deal might get inked. Dillon's a big, strong defensive-defenceman that logs major time on the penalty kill, and that's a playing style that the Stars' blueline is currently in short supply of. Oleksiak fits into that particular kind of mold a lot better than Jokipakka does, so keeping Oleksiak up to start the season might just be to balance out the blueline as a temporary placeholder until Dillon eventually gets signed.
The second reason is Oleksiak's potential. There are definitely still kinks to work out in his overall game at the moment, but when you have a blueliner that stands 6'7" and is a great skater, that's a very impressive and very rare foundation to build around. If Oleksiak can continue to grow and to learn, and eventually reach his full potential, then the Stars will have a very, very special player on their hands in the future. While letting Oleksiak do that growing for one more year in the AHL makes a lot of sense, maybe Ruff and his staff want a little more hands-on time with Oleksiak to watch his development a little more closely. When you have a player with such a high potential it's certainly worth putting in the time and effort to do so.
There are still nine days before Dallas' regular season opener on October 9th, and things can change in that time. Dillon could get signed in that span, which would give the Stars eight defencemen, so Oleksiak might get sent back down to the Texas Stars without actually seeing any ice time.
Even if he doesn't stick in Dallas right now, Oleksiak is getting closer and closer to a time when he does, and that's certainly going to be something worth keeping a close eye on.