Jamie Oleksiak experienced a career rebirth after being acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oleksiak, a former first round pick, had fallen far out of favor in Dallas and last December he was had for only a fourth-round pick. The giant defenseman who stands 6-foot-7 and weighs at least 255 pounds saw too much press box time in Dallas and never became a full-time player. And yet Oleksiak could be the lynchpin of the 2018-19 Penguins defense.
The Penguins will gamble on Oleksiak this season. He could be a top-four defenseman who anchors the left side beside offensive defenseman Justin Schultz. That pair worked very well for stretches of the regular season, but Oleksiak was essentially benched in the playoffs through Round One until Brian Dumoulin’s injury in Game 2, Round Two forced Oleksiak to play more minutes. Oleksiak regained the coaches’ trust and played regular minutes for the remainder of the series.
Or, Oleksiak, a left-handed shot, could be forced to play the right side of the third pairing because the Penguins blue line corps has only two right-handed defensemen, Justin Schultz and Kris Letang. Chad Ruhwedel is also right-handed but will likely serve as the seventh defenseman and not dress often, unless the Penguins suffer injuries or ineffectiveness. So, Oleksiak, the newly signed Jack Johnson, or Olli Maatta could be shoved to the right side to polish the Penguins pairings.
The right side of the third pairing won’t be an ideal situation for any of the defenders. Johnson has some experience on the right side but coming off a down year, the Penguins could choose to put Johnson in his more natural role, on the left side. And Oleksiak, 25, has more offensive skill than Maatta which means Oleksiak is the more likely candidate to play on the right side, which is where the Penguins like to put the offensive defensemen.
The Penguins defense corps will be a seven-deep unit with puck-moving skills and quick feet and at least a pair of stay-at-home defenders such as Maatta and Brian Dumoulin. The Penguins defense will also have a gritty, jam element they have not possessed in a very long time. Two physical defenders, Oleksiak and Johnson, will make this Penguins defense the toughest to play against since the 2013-14 team which suited up Brooks Orpik, Robert Bortuzzo, and Deryk Engelland.
Oleksiak and Johnson are more versatile, well-rounded players and significantly better skaters than the defensemen listed above. Oleksiak used his massive frame to his advantage and threw 174 hits last season, including 138 hits in just 47 games with the Penguins. The Penguins will have a counterbalance to the heavy Washington Capitals.
As a Penguin, Oleksiak also posted the best analytics of his career. His Corsi was a career-best 51.2 percent despite starting his second-highest percentage of shifts in the defensive zone (52.7 percent). He also registered his highest shot total (64), tied his highest shot block total (53), and takeaways (18).
But it all depends on Oleksiak’s ability to handle the roles and responsibilities.
Oleksiak was best as the stay-home, physical defender on Schultz’ left side. However, Oleksiak’s game unraveled when he tried to do too much; when he forced offense and activated at wrong times. Oleksiak does possess offensive skills. He has a heavy shot from the point and is a surprisingly deft skater with good stick work.
When Oleksiak forced the issue, he lost proper positioning and spent portions of entire games trying to regain his footing.
And there lies the danger of the Penguins group of defensemen. If Oleksiak is up to the challenge of being a top-four defenseman or play on the right side, the Penguins defense could be a physical, dynamic force which elevates the team. If Oleksiak stumbles in either role, the Penguins could again be forced into patchwork, and the most expensive blue line in the NHL will still be a placeholder on a Stanley Cup contender.
Oleksiak has more potential to become an impact defender than any Penguins defenseman except Kris Letang. Schultz and Letang are known factors. It’s Oleksiak’s turn to tap into his abilities. And in that huge potential rests the potential of the Penguins defense to be a very good unit, rather than an average corps.
Yep, Oleksiak is the lynchpin.