This was always going to be a big year for Jamie Oleksiak. He has the frame (6’7", 241 lbs), the pedigree (14th overall pick, 2011), and at 22 years old, fits firmly into the "on the cusp" category of young defensive prospects. Furthermore, it is not unfair to refer to the Stars’ defense as a position of need. Yet here we are, 42 games into the season, with a team defense every bit as frail as we expected, still wondering what role our hulking behemoth is destined to play.
It’s fair to ask, at this point, what the Dallas Stars have in Jamie Oleksiak.
Despite two quick cups of coffee with the big club, Oleksiak has spent the bulk of his professional time as a member of Dallas’ AHL affiliate (the Texas Stars). The totals are impressive: 128 regular season games, 30 more in the playoffs, 11 goals, 45 assists, and a Calder Cup Championship. That championship season is particularly significant. Oleksiak was a big part of a tremendous defensive unit.
Only seven teams allowed fewer than Texas’ 197 goals against during that championship run. That’s 2.59 goals per game. Elite. I wish desperately I had more in the way of in-depth statistical analysis (some of you are thrilled I do not), but what I can say is that, most nights, he passed the eye test with flying colors. For the most part, Oleksiak seemed to have mastered the benefits of his big frame, and become an absolute nightmare for onrushing forwards to deal with.
It was not a surprise to see him break camp with the big squad, and I am not ashamed to admit my hopes were high. Fast forward those same 42 games, and Oleksiak has spent basically one game out of the lineup (15) for every two games he’s actually played (27). He’s played as much as 20:38, and as little as 8:22. Oleksiak has also managed two separate trips back down I-35. Though back with Stars now, Oleksiak hasn’t seen the ice since January 8th.
I ask again, what the heck do the Stars have in Jamie Oleksiak?
The counting stats tell us to be patient. In 27 games, Oleksiak has one goal and eight assists. He’s a +1 (significant with this crew), averages 13:02 per night, has recorded 62 hits, and 31 blocks. Those last two are good for 3rd and 7th respectively. You like seeing a big kid like Oleksiak throw his weight around. The confidence required to play the body tends to come late. It’s also nice to see that Oleksiak has only accumulated eight penalty minutes. Those totals do not exactly scream healthy scratch.
There are some totals that do, though. In his 27 games, Oleksiak’s 45.2 Corsi For % betters only Ryan Garbutt, Travis Moen, and Vernon Fiddler among roster regulars. Garbutt (37.2% Offensive zone starts), Moen (42.3% OZS), and Fiddler (34.6% OZS) can explain away their numbers with brutal defensive zone work. Oleksiak enjoys no such benefit. He begins more than half of his shifts in the offensive zone (52.3%), which is more than all but John Klingberg and Jyrki Jokipakka. This perhaps explains his high hit totals. If you never have the puck, there are plenty of hits to go around.
Those are negative stats, but let me be clear, they’re not appalling. Tyler Myers, in between popping up in trade rumors, has managed a 37.1 CF%. Our old friend Stephane Robidas, to drive the point further, checks in at 39.8 CF%. The notion that Jamie Oleksiak is already irredeemable, or has already busted, is foolish.
Zdeno Chara was a -27 his last season on Long Island. Actually, he was -27 in his last two seasons on Long Island. That’s in each season, by the way, not combined. Then, he turned 24 and got traded to the Ottawa Senators. By 25 he had a seventh place Norris Trophy finish. It was the beginning of a stretch during which he received votes for the honor in 11 straight seasons, including a win in 2008/2009.
One last time, what on earth do the Dallas Stars have in Jamie Oleksiak?
A young player. A physically gifted player. A guy capable of excellence, but not capable of elevating a troubled defensive unit. Does that mean he’s two years away from a Chara-esque explosion? I don’t think anybody can know that. Remember, Chara was traded twice. Remember as well Myers toiling away in Buffalo.
The challenge is in how they choose to bring him along. Dallas is a team with legitimate (albeit troubled) playoff aspirations. Twenty minutes a night, no matter what, is a recipe for confidence-destroying disaster. With that said, there are also very real questions about how much more Jamie Oleksiak can learn pulping AHL players.
Maybe 27/15 is a good ratio at this point. Hopefully, Oleksiak will be able to lean on the experiences of his elder teammates. Trevor Daley has certainly been through the wars, Alex Goligoski might be able to sympathize with the struggle to meet lofty expectations.
Ultimately, I think the key is going to be Jamie Oleksiak. You can’t teach size, but you can teach how to make the right defensive zone read or when to pinch. There is a tangible gap between physical specimen and hockey player. At 6’7" it’s not a large step, but it’s one Oleksiak is going to have to take to progress.