Penguins

Oleksiak brings more than just physical play

Jamie Oleksiak is big and he can fight but there’s a lot more speed and skill to his game. It’s for the latter reasons that the Penguins re-signed him for three more years.

Jamie Oleksiak. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

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.”

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lizard_kingbb
lizard_kingbb

The fact that he can skate as well as he can for a big man, should hopefully mean with further development by Martin and Gonch, he’ll really improve and become a consistently impactful D man.

The whistler
The whistler

Big Rig does have speed and when he takes puck up ice on a rush his huge strides always seem to fool the defense…. Think we may have just scratched the surface with this former 1st Rd pick ….. And with Gonch and Martin coaching him, I can see him settling in with Schultzy as the #2 pair. Only thing I’d like to see improve from #6 is his PK play…bc with his reach and size, he could be a great PK guy.

beltedcattle
beltedcattle

Good stuff Chris.

MS
MS

He doesn’t have to fight to be a pain to play against. If he fights then great, I hope he doesn’t get dinged. The whole team, in today’s game, has to be miserable to play against. First on pucks and waves of pressure. That’s more mentality than braun. Great article btw

Rainmanoly
Rainmanoly

I love this signing so much.

My God, is anyone else old enough to remember Chara’s first handful of years in the league? He was with the Islanders and just another ho-hum defensive defensemen. (I had to look this up, if you can remember which year was which, more power to ya!) He was drafted in 96 by the Islanders, and he was traded to the Sens in 01/02. In 02/03, he finally shined.

Let’s put it this way, he didn’t immediately figure things out, but once he did…… Olesiak CAN SKATE. Now, add in that nasty reach. Finally, with that size, his slap shot has the potential to become absolutely brutal….. I really think this guy will be a star in this league one day.

StudentOfTheGame
StudentOfTheGame

Great post, I totally agree. I remember gangly Chara, everyone tried to run him & fans ridiculed him mercilessly. Love this signing & JR’s seeming strategy of targeting former 1st round picks that seem out of favor, underachieving or unloved on their original team. Sheahan was another. Oleksiak will be crucial in countering Wilson during the coming wars with the Caps.

I was hoping JR would invite Despres to camp to add depth & perhaps upgrade the 7/8 slots. Sustr would have been nice as well, Anaheim got him for just $1.3m on a one year deal and his potential seems to be similar to that of Oleksiak.

Bridge
Bridge

Agree with all of that…. Except Despres.

Rainmanoly
Rainmanoly

Why Bridge? In many ways Despres was as miss-used and set up to fail the same way Schultz was with the Oilers.

traymond190
traymond190

Despres couldnt bounce back from concussions. Anaheim bought him out because of it. What he miss 3 months with the first big one. He’s talented but not worth the roster spot.

Rainmanoly
Rainmanoly

I keep saying the should hang a sign on the Shingle. “Martin and Gonchar, Defense Specialists”

mike
mike

IMO, the thing about Wilson; he is a dirty, predatory, cheap-shot artiste. It just appears to me that he studies precisely how to injure a player to eliminate him from a game/series while not committing an obvious penalty. I don’t like him and wish he wasn’t in the NHL. He is the type of player that should be suspended for the amount of time the player he attacks does not play. Oleksiak does not at all appear to be the type of human being to equalize rosters by taking out one of 43’s teammates.

Bradleya89
Bradleya89

Uh, yup!

RickKehoe17
RickKehoe17

I really like this signing. He is a young guy that can continue to get develop his game. He is a great fit on this team.

msurma417
msurma417

I like Oleksiak. Seems like a lot of money but that’s the going rate for these guys nowadays. All things being equal I’d rather him in a Pens uniform than in another teams’.

sgerwel1985
sgerwel1985

Exactly, it’s the going rate. Think of him as Cole’s replacement, and Cole (prior to his recent free agency signing) was making 2.5m or so. Ultimately i’m fine with 2.1 for a bottom pairing.