Among Dallas Stars fans, few players are as polarizing defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is.
It’s not hard to understand why.
Oleksiak’s biggest appeals as a player are the same things that have stood out for him ever since the day that he was drafted: his massive 6’7”, 255-pound frame and his uncharacteristic ability to move around on the ice so effectively for such a big man. It’s practically impossible to miss the one they call the “Big Rig” when he’s out there, and not the least of the reasons why is that once in a while he does something that pulls you out of your seat, such as this highlight-reel goal in November against the St. Louis Blues:
The flip side of this coin, however, is that Oleksiak’s size makes him especially noticeable when he does something poorly. And unfortunately for both him and for the Stars, that seemed to happen quite a lot this season.
One of the most important skills for an NHL defenseman in today’s game, if not the most important, is the ability to make decisions correctly, and to do it quickly. The game is faster than it ever has been, and teams are much better coached, too. Time and space are luxuries. Make the wrong decision as a defender and it’s easy for the puck to end up in your own net, whether immediately or at the end of a long stretch spent chasing the puck in your own end. It doesn’t matter how big you are or how well you skate if opposing teams are frequently capitalizing on your mistakes.
Oleksiak’s overall decision-making this past season was, simply put, not good enough. Despite playing a limited role on the team’s 3rd pairing, averaging the second-lowest time-on-ice for Stars defensemen at 16:12 per game, he was often a liability in his own zone. Misdeeds such as covering the wrong player, drifting out of position, and coughing up the puck were all too common.
In terms of basic possession numbers, Oleksiak had a 49.4 Corsi For percentage last season, second lowest among all Stars blueliners.
The biggest question that exists for Dallas right now regarding the Big Rig is this: just how much more growing can he do at the NHL level?
Oleksiak is 24 years old, which is an age that a lot of defenders have already hit their strides as players, but making things difficult for the Stars is the fact that he only has a combined total of 119 games in the NHL. A primary victim of the team carrying eight defensemen for the second season in a row, Oleksiak was in and out of the lineup for most of the past two years, which likely had a negative impact on his play and his ability to get into a rhythm.
The concern for Dallas, of course, is what happens if Oleksiak sees an increased role, both in terms of games played and nightly responsibilities, but the mistakes remain a frequent issue? Additionally, what if that issue becomes exploited during a close playoff series?
If Oleksiak indeed still has another level that he can take his game to, the potential would certainly be tremendous. Defensemen with his size and his ability to cover large distances of ice in just a few skating strides are a rare commodity in the league. With regards to an aforementioned limiting of time and space, no other types of players are as physically advantaged for doing so.
Is another level a realistic possibility? Digging through the numbers a little further, there are some promising signs that it could be.
First, look at the following Corsi For percentages that Oleksiak posted when paired with these different Dallas defensemen at even strength:
Oleksiak and Friends
For whatever reason, Oleksiak did not have success playing alongside Patrik Nemeth. He did, however, post some very respectable numbers with Dan Hamhuis, and some simply stellar numbers with Stephen Johns and Greg Pateryn. His ice time spent with Hamhuis, Johns and Pateryn were all small samples, but they still suggest that his play might improve when paired consistently with the right partners.
Secondly, Oleksiak started 36.8% of his even strength starts in the defensive zone, the highest percentage among all Stars blueliners. Even against weaker competition this is a notable disadvantage, and likely not an optimal way to use him at this point in his career. Softer usage could also have a positive impact in his performance.
Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill will undoubtedly have a lot of thinking to do about his towering 24 year-old defender, who is a restricted free agent seeking a new contract and also a conceivable target for the Vegas Golden Knights in the upcoming expansion draft. Exactly how much can Oleksiak bring the Dallas Stars, both in the short-term and long-term future?
Grade Jamie Oleksiak’s 2016-17 Season
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