Opinion: It’s a tough choice, but the Dallas Stars should let Jamie Oleksiak walk

Jamie Oleksiak has turned into the player Dallas believed him to be when he was drafted. Why would it make sense to let him walk? That’s the four plus million dollar question.

It’s hard to believe that Jamie Oleksiak is still just twenty-eight. He may be ‘old man hunching his back’ in prospect years, but Oleksiak has been playing NHL hockey long enough to tell Remember When stories about Brenden Morrow. Despite having been in the league a long time, it was only until recently that he became the player Dallas believed he’d be when they drafted him 14th overall in 2011.

As a prospect, he was big, could skate despite lugging around the weight of a private jet, and seemed to be the hybrid defenseman teams salivate for. His time in the AHL was a success by any measure: after scoring 33 points in 59 games his rookie year, he followed that up with several cups of coffee with Dallas, and a Calder win for the Texas Stars. Unfortunately for Oleksiak, it was around this time that Dallas made a push to be competitive.

The NHL is “not a development league” as they say (as if your first real job would ever tell you that your work is not part of your career). The end result for Jamie was being bounced around the lineup, sent down, healthy scratched, and ultimately traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins when his play failed to deliver the edge Dallas felt they needed in order to win now. The Penguins turned out to be a good fit. Pittsburgh didn’t have any insecurities about being competitive. But it didn’t last long though. Oleksiak’s time in Pittsburgh ended the same way it ended in Dallas: as a replacement level defender healthy-scratched for more promising talent.

When Oleksiak came back, it took some time for him to find a groove, but found it he did. The issue Oleksiak always had, at least in my view, was one of identity. Torn between the perception of who teams wanted him to be, a big physical shutdown defenceman, he could never harmonize what he actually was: an aggressive, three-zone back more comfortable with the puck than without. The Stars have ostensibly benefited from bringing Oleksiak back into the fold. Me personally? I think it’s complicated.

Jamie Oleksiak: Elite shutdown defender?

I know. More charts? For the record, I will never post a chart or graph on a player I haven’t personally watched. The point is not to show readers a technical-looking chart, and pretend like my work is done understanding the player. If a player’s analytics are good one year, and bad the next, that’s all the more reason to go back and figure out what circumstances (was the team injured?) or context (did the player have different teammates?) might have led to that.

This is where analytics become more interpretation than answer. Especially when it comes to defencemen. If a player is credited with a certain value, how is that value distinguished from the other players who indirectly contribute? Do we know enough about systems to account for their effect (however subtle) on performance, and do we know enough about each position to know how a player’s role is defined by a given system? At what level is a player’s performance also a system’s performance (i.e. what they were asked to do)?

Unlike in baseball, where “catch all” stats began, player roles and positions are always changing in hockey, even within shifts. Even for those who have a crisper grasp of “catch all” numbers like GAR and WAR, much is up for debate. Still, let’s be adventurous and dive into Oleksiak’s goals above replacement.

‘Replacement’ is measured to include performance and playing time. The point is that rather than compare players to a raw average, let’s instead look at the level of production provided by a player that any given team can use to fill an empty roster spot (hence the 13/7 calculation). This gives us a sense of population rather than sample. Think of it another way. The average amount of goals scored by a Dallas forward this season was seven. And yet seven goals this season would have made this “average” player a top six goal-scoring forward in Dallas. Make sense?

With that in mind, we see that over the last three seasons, Oleksiak performs well above replacement level in terms of 5-on-5 defense. His ability to help generate goals is an odd contradiction though. Offensively, he’s well below replacement level, but in terms of expected goals, he’s well above replacement level.

Anyone who pays close attention to his game probably understands why. Oleksiak likes being aggressive. He likes pinching along the half wall, gaining momentum to sling behind the net for a pass to the crease, or a shot from an off-angle so that forwards can grab a rebound. Some of his G/xG contradiction might be owed to luck, or lackthereof. Another factor might be that any model with an emphasis on goals, something defenceman aren’t as intimately connected to, will naturally yield some noise. Then there’s what we know from watching Oleksiak: he isn’t a creative passer, or an especially good shooter. These elements show up every now and then, but it’s not a trait he can summon at will.

Expected goal models can’t capture specific pre-shot movement, but we do have some passing data this season to confirm what we suspect: Oleksiak is good at making the direct plays — passing back to the point for a shot or sending the puck into a scoring chance area — but doesn’t generate indirect, or sequential movement the way Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg can.

The asterisk: how much of this is simply the Miro Effect?

Let’s discuss the first asterisk. Over the last three seasons Oleksiak has been passed up by six different defencemen on the penalty kill. On the power play, Oleksiak has played 146 games since 2018 yet Taylor Fedun, Julius Honka, and Gavin Bayreuther have played more total minutes on the power play than Oleksiak.

Whatever reason not to play him clearly has nothing to do with the depth chart. And it certainly has nothing to do with trying to distribute his icetime. Until the 2020-2021 season, Oleksiak has averaged between 13-17 minutes a season. Why does a player with his profile get sidelined by marginal, often temporary, talent? I honestly don’t know. That’s a question for J.B. Fletcher.

The second asterisk is Heiskanen. I want to plug my article on Heiskanen’s usage in the Stars system one more time, because I feel like some people missed the point. It was never about criticizing Dallas’ system (well, perhaps a little). The point was always about the small, subtle ways that trying to higher the team’s floor at the cost of Heiskanen’s ceiling was actively hurting his on-ice results. As I mentioned, we’ve seen this phenomenon in Columbus, where Seth Jones has suddenly been targeted as an analytics dud despite there being a clear correlation between Jones’ “decline” and Columbus’ usage of Zach Werenski as the designated driver of the pair’s offense.

I think what we’re seeing is that defensive chemistry relies more on defined roles, and the way each skillset accentuates those roles; keep in mind, this is different from “defensive guy with offensive guy”. Unlike forwards, where you have more interlocking pieces between a distributor, a shooter, and a havoc-causer — defensive pairs have no such luxury. Their effectiveness is inextricably linked across all three zones. There’s the good cop, and then there’s the bad cop. Miro Heiskanen should never have to play with Roman Polak, but it’s worth noting how much better Miro’s underlying numbers were his rookie year despite spending most of his time with Polak.

We’ve talked about the concept of ‘replacement’ when it comes to offense. What about wins? Since wins rely on goals, brighter minds have used these fancy models to include a baseline for the amount of goals that are scored per game, and the amount of goals that are scored per win. Thus, the WAR model: which takes into account the assembled value of EV offense, EV defensive, PP, PK, and penalty impact. Thankfully we have a timeline for Oleksiak’s impact on wins over the last five seasons.

The massive jump in on-ice impact conveniently coincides with Oleksiak being paired next to Heiskanen. Does that mean the credit, therefore, goes purely to Heiskanen? No. But if we focus solely on defense, Heiskanen’s true specialty, it does lend the implication more credence.

What’s interesting is that, as you can see above, Oleksiak’s offensive impact has remained average, but steadily declined, while his defensive impact has been trending up, but experienced its sharpest increase when — again — he got partnered with Heiskanen. Maybe part of this was Oleksiak benefiting from Dallas’ stifling defensive system? If that’s true, you would expect Miro to benefit too and he didn’t.

If all we had to go by was a cheat sheet of Stars facts, you might explain away Miro’s strange dip as: Polak dragged Miro’s defense down his freshman year but not his offense, while Oleksiak helped his defense while taking away some of Miro’s offense the sophomore and junior years. Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. But their on-ice value was fairly synchronized last season. So why the diverging paths?

Now let’s start throwing our stats out the window. What changed between 2019-2020, when both players seemed firmly in sync, and the 2020-2021 season when Miro’s game took a brief turn for the lesser? ‘The injuries, obviously. How was Miro supposed to be his usual elite self when Dallas didn’t have its usual elite forwards?’

That’s plausible. Dallas led the league in controlled zone exits by their defencemen. Maybe that was deliberate: with key pieces missing at forward, the increased workload might have affected Miro more than Oleksiak. My only problem with this is that if the system was helping drive their respective defensive performances, why would one benefit and not the other? And that’s when I remembered what Mark Zimmerman talked about earlier this season: Miro’s move to his weak side. It wasn’t until 2020-2021 that Miro was shifted to the right side (an odd move given that the old alignment is part of what got them to last season’s dance).

Handedness might seem like a small thing, but it’s not. It’s tied to player tendencies and habits. In 2019, Connor Jung from Sportlogiq gave a presentation at the Seattle Hockey Analytics Conference on handedness. Because most NHL players shoot with their left, a lot of players have to play on their weak side. The insights were pretty intuitive, but still interesting to see from a pure data perspective: compared to defenders playing on their strong side, weak side defenders struggle to sequence with possession, whether it’s completing plays that lead to maintaining possession or dumping the puck out to exit the zone. Defensively, they also concede more ice. The average gap distance during zone entries increases with the defending player on their weak side.

You might be thinking, ‘well how does that explain why Oleksiak didn’t struggle when he was on the weak side the year before?’ I don’t think it does. An argument could be made that Heiskanen in the driver seat, on his more effective side, simply makes everyone around him that much better. If Oleksiak struggles, it might be hard to notice given how much ice Heiskanen covers. But if Heiskanen struggles, even at his worst, everyone benefits from such a complete, 200ft game. But this isn’t about knowing what the problem is, because honestly, there may not be one.

I think the real question is: do we have a strong sense of Oleksiak’s game, which is improving — but to the point where the Stars should commit cap and term to him?

The instinct for plenty of fans, and probably officials within the Stars organization, is that this might all be noise. We all saw how good Oleksiak could be next to Heiskanen, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs no less. What better barometer is there than that?

Fair enough. I’m not pretending this is an easy discussion, or a simple choice. Oleksiak looks nothing like the defenceman I used to criticize. Where before I would lament his weakside defending and constant being out of position, now he has much better on-ice awareness. He seems more comfortable what who he is and what he can do. And the numbers confirm some of what my eyes see: a player much improved.

But what about the things we don’t see? Well, we haven’t seen Oleksiak take over a role on special teams. And we haven’t seen Oleksiak play away from Heiskanen. So who is he, really? Has Heiskanen brought out the best in him? Is Oleksiak benefitting from being ‘along for the ride’ so to speak? Or did it finally all click for Oleksiak, and playing with Heiskanen was the key to him unlocking his potential?

Stray observations

Again, despite the title, I can’t answer those questions. If Dallas decides to pay Oleksiak, they’re essentially banking on the notion that Oleksiak’s performance over the last two seasons says more about him than the previous five. And they’ll be accepting that conclusion while recognizing that he has very little special team experience, and will never generate much production (he has yet to cross the 20-point barrier).

Then there’s the cap. Let’s say Dallas has their top four forwards and top four defenceman all figured out. If Heiskanen, Klingberg, Robertson, Hintz, and Oleksiak are all signed to their expected next contracts, that will be $56M tied up in eight players (the other three being Benn, Seguin, and Lindell). For comparison sake that’s only $2M less than the amount of cap Toronto has tied up in their top four forwards and top four defenceman.

Obviously, there are ways around this. Dallas doesn’t have to sign Miro to his full term, and they don’t have to give Klingberg a raise (which I don’t personally advocate for). Is Oleksiak that essential to Dallas’ top four? Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are fantastic defenceman. Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta are the players standing next to them. As insulting as that sounds, they make under $3M for a reason. It’s not that they’re bad or even average. It’s that they paid for their roles, not the performance of their superior partners. If the Stars pay what Oleksiak’s projected contract should be (5 years, $4.1M), he’ll be getting Brett Pesce money. Is Oleksiak a 6’7 Pesce?

I don’t know but I take my cues from The Wire. Marlo is holding court in jail. He asks Chris, his cerebral but violent righthand man if one of his soldiers snitched on them. Chris says he doesn’t think said soldier would ever do such a thing. To which Marlo replies, ‘you willing to be your future on that?’

All stats courtesy of Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey, and JFreshHockey.