Oleksiak, who was selected by the Stars in the first round (14th overall) in the NHL Entry Draft less than two weeks ago, is making his first visit to the Metroplex as part of the club’s annual orientation camp, which started Friday at the McKinney Dr Pepper StarCenter.
At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds, the giant defenseman who just finished his freshman year at Northeastern University has been hard to miss during the on-ice sessions that have been open to the public. He’s enjoyed mingling with the other Stars prospects, including four of the other five Dallas 2011 draft picks, as well as meeting the organization’s staff in a variety of departments.
“It’s been great. I’m trying to have fun this week and I’m really enjoying how they’re focusing on skill development,” said Oleksiak, who totaled four goals and 13 points, along with 57 penalty minutes, in 38 games for Northeastern in 2010-11. “I’m working with them on an individual level and they do a good job of making everyone feel welcome. I think it’s already a pretty close-knit group of guys and it’s already been a lot of fun so far. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the week and I’m really going to take this as a learning experience and a chance to go to the next level.”
It’s been a whirlwind two weeks for Oleksiak, who is still coming to grips with how dramatically his life has changed. Motioning to 2010 first-round pick Jack Campbell
, Team USA’s star goaltender at the past two World Junior Championship tournaments, who was standing just a few feet away, Oleksiak admitted that sharing the same ice as other players he’s looked up to made it all seem like a bit of a dream.
“It was surreal at the draft,” acknowledged Oleksiak, who was the second-youngest player invited to Team USA’s final camp for the 2011 World Juniors, but didn’t make the roster. “You grow up watching all these people on TV, watching the camps, and a lot of these guys have a lot of ability and they could be the ones to be the next future Stars. To be on the ice with these guys is really humbling, and I’m really trying to learn off everybody. And you can see, if I work hard, I can get to that next level. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do that, so it’s really about making the most of it. I’m really excited and just trying to take it all in right now. I still don’t think it’s really hit me.”
Dallas scouts were quite impressed not only with Oleksiak’s imposing size, but also with his ability to skate and make plays at that size, especially for a youngster of 18 - engendering inevitable comparisons to other large, mobile blueliners such as Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Buffalo’s Tyler Myers.
“I think the first thing that’s catching is his size, 6-7, 240, and still room to grow in that frame,” noted Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk after making the selection in Minnesota on June 24. “He’s a kid at Northeastern University that our scouts have followed closely, he moves well for a big man. We’ve seen the impact over the years that big men can have on the game, and it goes back with us with Derian Hatcher and the success that he had. He has Chara-type size and he skates well and moves the puck. The offense is probably not overwhelming, but he plays an all-around game, and the important thing is as a guy that size who skates that well, he’s hard to play against.
“He makes plays, he can stickhandle and he can move. He’ll have some growth in his game to develop, but our scouts have seen him a lot this year and they’re very comfortable that he’s going to be a big-time prospect.”
Other scouts around the league agree that Oleksiak has loads of potential.
“I think he has unbelievable upside,” said Gary Eggleston of NHL Central Scouting before the draft. “Whoever gets him is probably going to hit a home run with this kid. You could be looking at a 15- to 16-year player in the league, and to get a kid that size and skates that well is not common. He handles the puck well, has an excellent shot and his pass percentage completion in two games I saw was 100 percent - he never missed. He covers a lot of ice in a very short time and it’s a long trip around the outside with that wing-span of his. He always has that stick out there dangling, too, so he keeps the guys about eight feet away.”
“He’s so big and his size is such an advantage,” added an Eastern Conference scout. “He has a long reach and can pass the puck. He has some advantages over a lot of guys. He’s big, has a good stick and can move the puck. Over time, he’ll become more offensive.”
Oleksiak himself considers himself a well-rounded defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the ice.
“For me as a player, I really try to be a reliable player, in all situations,” said Oleksiak, who led the entire Northeastern squad with a +13 plus/minus rating as a freshman. “I try to use my size and my skating abilities to take away other teams’ offensive opportunities, to move the puck up and create something in transition. That’s kind of my style of game and hopefully, if I’m fortunate to play for the Stars, I’ll be able to bring that to the table.”
Oleksiak also acknowledged that after spending a season in the same city with him, the 6-foot-9 Chara, captain of the Stanley Cup-winning Bruins, is a player that he admires and has tried to model his game after.
“I try and learn off a bunch of guys all over the NHL, it’s hard to narrow it down to just one guy, but if I had to say, Chara would be a guy that I really look up to,” noted Oleksiak, who grew up in Toronto but moved to Detroit at 14, and since his dad is from Buffalo, holds dual citizenship that allows him to skate for Team USA internationally. “I got to watch a lot of him in Boston. I love his style of play and I try to learn off him a lot, and I think he’s a phenomenal player. He brings a lot to the table and he’s reliable in all situations and that’s kind of what I’m looking to do.”
One thing that is still up in the air is Oleksiak’s plans for next season. Because Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin left the school to become an assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Oleksiak is not sure yet if he’s going to return for his sophomore year or perhaps jump to play junior hockey in the OHL.
“As of yet, I don’t really have any plans,” Oleksiak said. “Obviously, we don’t want to make a decision until Northeastern finds a head coach. I don’t think that would be fair to the program, which has been phenomenal. They’ve done a lot to help me and really just seeing what coach they bring in. My ultimate goal is to play professional hockey one day, so it’s really a matter of where I’ll do the most developing and get ready for that next level.”
“I think (college) is the best way for him,” noted Les Jackson, the Stars’ Director of Scouting and Player Development. “Obviously, if he goes to junior, he gives up a great education at Northeastern. I think that’s something that he and his family will have to discuss and find out where he wants to go. But for a big guy, in July, he looks pretty good.”
And while Oleksiak admitted he was still working off some summer rust at the Dallas orientation camp, he is already fully-immersed in his off-season conditioning regimen, determined to make it back here for good some day.
“I’m just trying to take it day-by-day and try to get as much out of this camp, and focus on every drill,” said Oleksiak, whose father Richard lettered in track at Colgate University and stands about a half-inch taller than him. “I think I’ve bulked up over the last couple of summers and I really want to focus on improving my fast footwork and overall mobility, getting in close in the corners, and that movement, and being able to move the puck faster. At the next level, the decision-making is a split-second, so I really want to focus on that and get that better.”