Go ahead. Try to slap a label on Jamie Oleksiak. Just be warned that it’s likely to bounce right off of him, the same way opponents do as the Penguins teach the defenseman to better use his size and strength.
On the ice and off, Oleksiak is a renaissance man, a collection of moving parts, a work in progress and, given his family background, a self-described “international man.”
When the Penguins acquired him Dec. 19 from Dallas for a conditional 2019 fourth-round draft pick, Oleksiak might have been called a disappointment or even a bust as a Stars first-round draft pick in 2011. That’s one label the 6-foot-7, 225-pound 25-year-old has peeled away since he arrived.
Oleksiak has become a regular, primarily as a third-pair defenseman, and seems to be tapping into his potential. That has a lot to do with the soft landing the Penguins provided.
“It’s been great,” Oleksiak said before the All-Star break, which ends Monday with an afternoon practice. “There’s a great group of guys here, and they’re all very welcoming and have done a good job easing me into it. It’s never easy to make that transition that part of the season. I’ve tried to hit the ground running as much as possible. We’re gaining some traction here. I’m just doing my part and trying to help us get some wins.”
He’s gaining traction, too, thanks to some key and welcome guidance. In 140 career games with Dallas, Oleksiak had seven goals, 22 points and was a minus-23. With the Penguins, he has two goals, four points and is a plus-1 in 16 games.
What gives? Well, Oleksiak is learning from his teammates and the staff, particularly defensive stalwarts Jacques Martin and, especially, Sergei Gonchar.
Gonchar picks out video clips that perfectly illustrate what doesn’t work, what works and what could work better. It can be as simple as going stick-first into corner puck battles. It’s also as broad as teaching Oleksiak to use his size and reach to much better advantage in all areas, including closing down lanes and clearing the front of the net.
“They’ll sacrifice their own time, pull you aside and show you things on video and work with you one-on-one in practice,” Oleksiak said. “It’s that specific help and little extra effort that definitely makes a difference on the coaches’ end. Guys on the team, too. If you have any questions, they’ll help you out. Phenomenal. The one-on-one attention to detail with them … Jacques does a lot of (penalty kill). He’s shown me a couple of little things that I can improve upon. Gonch has been there, done that. To pick his brain has been great.”
It has had quick results.
“It just changes your game,” Oleksiak said.
He’s not the first reclamation project the club has successfully taken on. Justin Schultz was stagnating with Edmonton but now is one of the Penguins’ top defensemen. Oleksiak isn’t even the first defenseman who was a first-round pick by Dallas who got new life here. Witness Matt Niskanen, now with Washington.
The Penguins have become sold on Oleksiak in his month-plus here.
“With each day that he’s here, he’s more comfortable with how we’re trying to play, the style of play that we have, the team tactics or the strategies that we’re using as a group,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think he’s getting more comfortable with his teammates in the locker room. You can see it in his game. We feel as if he’s gotten better with each game that he’s played. Part of that might just be his confidence level, that he knows that we believe in him.
“He brings a lot to the table. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s got a long reach. He’s a mobile guy for a guy that’s as big as he is. He can really shoot the puck.”
Oleksiak is eligible for restricted free agency after making just under $1 million this season. If he continues to grow into his body and his pedigree – “It’s still a work on progress, but I think it’s been great so far,” he said – he could continue to be a fixture on the blue line, or he could be a decent trade commodity.
He’s not likely to grow into another Gonchar or Kris Letang, but he’s shaping up as a multi-faceted defenseman.
“There’s so many different guys that have different skill sets,” Oleksiak said. “I’d probably say I’m a defensive defenseman, a puck-moving defenseman, I guess. I can do a good job finding lanes, passing the puck up and getting it to the forwards. I like to think my skating is pretty good for a big guy.”
And there are those hints of offense surfacing.
Many Roads to Pittsburgh
Oleksiak’s background is as diverse as his game. Penguins fans unfamiliar with him at the time of the trade might have eyed his name and wondered if he was European. How was his English?
It turns out he’s your basic hockey-loving Canadian from a family with five kids, one of whom is youngest sibling Penny. She won gold and three other swimming medals at the 2016 Olympics.
But there are a couple of twists. Their father, Richard, is of Polish descent and originally from Buffalo. Their mother, Alison, was born in Scotland and immigrated to Canada. The couple met in South Africa when Alison was in college there and Richard, a writer, was working on a television show.
“My background is kind of all over the place,” Oleksiak said. “All over the map.”
The family found its ideal spot. Perhaps Oleksiak has, also.