At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Jamie Oleksiak is almost always the biggest man on the ice.
He does not go around looking for trouble, though sometimes it does find him. And he’s more than OK with that.
With his size and strength, he is the closest thing the Penguins have to an enforcer. The defenseman fought five times last season and finished fourth on the team in hits while playing in a little over half a season with the Penguins, who acquired his services from Dallas in December for a conditional fourth-round draft pick in 2019.
Physical play, however, is only one component of Oleksiak’s game, as Jim Rutherford was telling DKPittsburghSports.com.
“I think you have to have a well-rounded game and you can’t be a liability on the ice,” Oleksiak was telling beat writers on Friday, a day after signing a three-year contract extension that carries an average annual value of $2,137,500. “I’ve never really thought of myself as an enforcer per se, but a defensive defenseman that makes his presence known physically. I’m still, obviously, fine-tuning that a little bit. I’ve learned a lot the past half-year and we have so many pieces that it’s kind of one way to contribute that’s a little bit different. Maybe not so much the power play QB kind of guy, but I like to think I can move the puck well, but, at the same time, lay the body down physically. It’s a different game.”
Indeed, it is becoming a different game. Perhaps nowhere is the game changing more than along the blueline. Look no further than last month’s draft where there were a half-dozen defensemen selected in the first round who stood under 6-feet tall. That doesn’t even take into account Calen Addison, the Lethbridge defenseman whom Pittsburgh picked in the second round.
The game is trending smaller, more toward speed and skill, and though Oleksiak is the second-tallest defenseman in the league, he brings a considerable amount of both. For a man his size, he’s an exceptional skater and has a strong, heavy shot. He set career highs in assists (12) and points (17) last season while matching his career high in goals (5).
In extending Oleksiak, the Penguins are looking for him to grow along with a defense corps that could be together for quite a while and complement the team’s wealth of talent up front. In that sense, Oleksiak’s not that much different from the rest of the ‘D’ corps.
“I think the one thing that kind of stands out is how tuned this group is for kind of the new game, kind of a fast puck-moving game,” Oleksiak was saying. “They’ve got a lot of guys that can chip in offensively and play a quick pace and can play in all situations, too. You have got guys like Tanger (Kris Letang) than can play PK, power play, can play 30 minutes a night. Also, with (Jack) Johnson coming in, he’s another guy that has experience and he can play in all situations.
“I think it’s good building chemistry. I think in terms of the new game, we have guys who can do a little bit of everything. But the big thing is just being able to move the puck quickly and get it up to our forwards because, obviously, we have a lot of firepower up front. It meshes well with the game.”
How well Oleksiak can mesh with Johnson will be one of the bigger storylines going into the season. Johnson, signed to a five-year, $16.25 million contract on the first day of free agency, figures to slot on the third defense pair with Oleksiak. Both are left-handed shots but Oleksiak reiterated that he is comfortable playing on his off-hand. He played both sides last season, depending on his partner.
“I really don’t have a preference, I don’t think that’s just me saying that,” Oleksiak said. “I’ve played on the right side in Dallas and I played on the left side in junior and the (AHL). There’s little adjustments you have to make here and there.
“We’ll see what the pairings are. Johnson’s a guy who is going to help us win games and it’s exciting to have him. Wherever I’m slotted, I’ll make the adjustments accordingly.”
Johnson is just the latest fixer-upper on the Penguins’ blueline. In recent seasons, the organization has gotten a lot of mileage out of projects like Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole and even Oleksiak. Like Johnson, Oleksiak has a first-round pedigree but fell out of favor with his former team.
Oleksiak credited assistant coaches Jacques Martin and Sergei Gonchar for bringing out the best in his own game. Martin works extensively on the PK and in the video room while Gonchar works on details like stick positioning, gap control and walking the line to find an open lane.
“I can’t say enough about those guys and how much they’ve helped me out and how willing they are to kind of put in extra time after practice or away from the rink to really help me develop my game,” he said. “I think having those guys was huge for me last year. Getting another three years to work with them and fine-tune some things was a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up on.”