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Oleksiak's stock continues to rise

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Oleksiak played 30 games for Little Caesars in 2008-09.
The NHL draft will be held June 24-25 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. For the second time in franchise history, the Red Wings will have the No. 24 selection, the fourth time in the first round.

Each week leading up to the June draft, will feature a top prospect that they believe will likely be available late in the first round.

Today's feature:

– Though his time in Hockeytown was short, it was the beginning of something big … really big for Jamie Oleksiak.

While he only spent three months with the Little Caesars Midget Majors, it was during that time that his physical development took off.

Could it have been something in the pizza ingredients?

“That was probably a big contributing factor,” said Oleksiak, laughing. “They were never short on pizzas after the games.”

Not only has Oleksiak shot up the growth chart, he’s elevated up the draft board, too. With five weeks before the 2011 amateur draft is conducted at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the big defenseman has grown into a bona fide first-rounder.

Oleksiak is finishing his freshman academic year at Boston’s Northeastern University. And standing at a menacing 6-foot-7 and 244 pounds, he is two-inches taller and more than 30 pounds heavier than he was when he wore a Little Caesars uniform.
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He may also be one of three Caesars alumni from the 2008-09 team that could be drafted June 25-26. Besides Oleksiak, who is ranked No. 13 among North America skaters by NHL Central Scouting, there is 5-foot-6 center Rocco Grimaldi (No. 32) and Michael Houser, listed as No. 19 among North American goalies.

“His skating is excellent now,” said Little Caesars coach Bill Ciraulo, referring to Oleksiak. “He’s poised with the puck, and was when he played for me. He was too patient sometimes, like Nick Lidstrom, with the puck.”

If an easy-going presence was the biggest flaw, it doesn’t seem to be a concern anymore. Oleksiak has fit perfectly into coach Greg Cronin’s college system. Cronin was an assistant coach for Team USA in the World Championships, which ended last Sunday in Slovakia.

“Cronin has been phenomenal; and knows how to get guys to the professional level,” Oleksiak said. “I owe a lot of my success to him and I can’t say enough about the program and the coaching staff, as well.”

Oleksiak may or may not be around when the Red Wings pick at No. 24 on the first day of the draft, but regardless, he has the potential to make a tremendous impact as a defensive defenseman in the NHL some day.

While his offensive numbers aren’t eye-popping – he wasn’t a regular on Northeastern’s power-play – he plays smart in all three zones and competes extremely hard. One scout said that Oleksiak is the type of guy who can be a dominate No. 1 defenseman.

That’s high praise for an 18-year-old, who said he’s enjoying the attention that surrounds the NHL draft.

“It’s only going to happen once in my lifetime and never again am I going to get this much exposure, this many calls,” Oleksiak said. “I’m just going to take it and run with it.”

As his stock continues to rise, Oleksiak remains cognizant of the public perception – fair or unfair – tagged on players his size.

“There are people who assume a lot when you’re bigger and the fact that you’re taller than most guys out there,” he said. “There is always a stereotype of big guys, big hockey players that they are a bit slower and they’re just running around hitting people. I think I’m still overcoming that obstacle. But those people haven’t watched me and they just assume that I’m just a big body and that I stand there and just use my stick.

“As I get more exposure, and I continue to work on my game and grow into my body, I have to learn a lot of movement, but it’s definitely an obstacle.”

It’s easy to label Oleksiak as mainly a defensive asset, but he prefers to think of himself as multi-dimensional.
“I target myself as a defensive defenseman, but I also join the rush,” he said. “That’s kind of my underrated ability. I focus on the defensive aspects of the game, but I might not lead the rush, I will definitely contribute as a third, fourth man in the play. I think my puck moving abilities is also a big factor in my game and I’m able to do well in all three zones.”

“As I get more exposure, and I continue to work on my game and grow into my body, I have to learn a lot of movement, but it’s definitely an obstacle.”

Over the last three years, Oleksiak has played a lot of hockey. In 150 games he has compiled nine goals, 32 assists and 210 penalty minutes.

As a young incoming freshman – he turned 18 in December – Oleksiak led Northeastern with a team-best plus-13 rating, and was second among Huskies defensemen with 12 points in 34 games. He was also the second-youngest player invited to Team USA’s final camp for the 2011 World Junior Championships.

A native of Toronto, Oleksiak began his minor hockey path with the Toronto Young Nationals, coached by former Maple Leafs forward Rick Vaive, before moving to Detroit. He also played in the United States Hockey League for the Chicago Steel and Sioux Falls Stampede prior to enrolling at Northeastern.

Oleksiak is from an athletic family. His dad, Dick, earned a collegiate letter in track, throwing the shot and discus at Colgate University, and played on the school’s first rugby team.

Meanwhile, Oleksiak has set himself up nicely for a productive career in pro hockey. But his parents have always stressed education as a priority, which is one reason he moved away from home when he was just 14.

“The dad wanted him out of Toronto because all of the OHL teams were all over him,” Ciraulo said. “He wanted his son to play in the States so that the colleges would see him.”

The decision to move south of the Canadian border has certainly paid off.

“I moved to Detroit to kind of give myself time to decide between major junior and college hockey,” Oleksiak said. “I wanted to explore college hockey a little more and get some more looks and I thought Detroit would be my best option.”

A return to Detroit, via the upcoming draft, would also be a welcomed move.

“Just playing in The Joe was an unbelievable experience,” Oleksiak said. “I watched so many games. And playing in that building where there is so much tradition and so much history. … It was really mind-blowing and playing there almost every day gave you a sense of prospective. It was a motivating factor.”

Follow Bill Roose on twitter | @RooseBill
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