Making the jump from college hockey to the junior ranks can be a big adjustment for any hockey player, no matter where they line up on the ice. But for Jamieson Oleksiak, the Stars’ first-round pick (14th overall) in the 2011 NHL Draft, his adjustment to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) was pretty seamless.
The 19-year-old defenseman started the season with the Saginaw Spirit and in 31 games, had 11 points (6-5-11) and was plus-11. Then on January 9, he was traded to Niagara and in 28 regular-season games with the IceDogs, had 21 points (6-15-21) and sported a plus/minus rating of plus-27.
Niagara General Manager/Head Coach Marty Williamson was definitely glad to pick up Oleksiak and was impressed with what he got from the 6-foot-7 blue-liner.
“Well, he’s such a big body and he takes up so much space. He makes it very difficult for the other team,” Williamson said. “In addition to being a good passer and a great teammate, he’s just very difficult to play against, which is a big asset for us.”
And while there has been a noticeable uptick in competition from what he faced a year ago during his lone season of college hockey at Northeastern, the entire experience of his first season in juniors was great.
“I think it’s been an unbelievable experience for me and I think it’s what I needed in terms of developing as a player,” Oleksiak said. “Just getting used to the scheduling and the style of game, I think it closely resembles the pro atmosphere, the pro schedule and the on-ice kind of game that you have to play. And I think for me personally, it’s been a great experience and has definitely made the transition easier for me.”
Making such a jump is often a big adjustment on several fronts. Whether it’s playing more games, facing a better caliber of competition or the increased speed of play, making the jump to a league like the OHL can be tough for any prospect. But for this Stars’ draftee, there was one part of it that was a bigger challenge than anything else.
“I would have to say the schedule… I went from 35 games to 70-plus, which definitely leaves some wear and tear on your body and takes a lot out of you,” Oleksiak said. “But I think you have to learn to adjust and your habits whether it would be sleeping more, eating better or just preparing for the games better. I think it was just what I needed.”
But that wasn’t the only adjustment he had to make. He also had to learn to use his size and physicality much more effectively in junior hockey, compared to his time at Northeastern.
“I would probably have to say physicality is my biggest asset,” Oleksiak said. “Coming to juniors was definitely a more physical game and I think there was an adjustment period to that, just knowing when I can finish a check or do a little extra to use the most of my size. I think that’s something I’ve definitely improved on this year and will continue to improve on. As I get more familiar with the game, my body and what not, I think it should come along.”
The trade to Niagara was beneficial for one very big reason. Saginaw was an up-and-down team for much of the season, while the IceDogs had one of the league’s top records and ended up winning the Central Division with 97 points, which tied them for second most points in the OHL during the regular season.
Niagara drew Oshawa in the opening round of the OHL Playoffs and dispatched the Generals in six games, prevailing four games to two. And like his adjustment to the longer schedule that he has now become accustomed to in junior hockey, playing in a longer playoff series has been something else he has had to quickly familiarize himself with.
“That is my first best-of-seven series. In college, we only played one-one-done. I played in the USHL, where it’s best-of-five, so it’s definitely a longer series,” Oleksiak said during the opening round of the OHL Playoffs. “Again, it models after the pro game and the pro scheduling. I think it’s definitely a good experience for me and it’s just a matter of trying to make the most of it, getting used to what I need to do to be successful in those situations, in those big games. I think we’re doing a good job so far. I’ve learned a lot and am very fortunate to be on a team like this and be in the playoffs.”
Oleksiak’s Ice Dogs then swept the Brampton Battalion in four games, and beat the Ottawa 67s in five games, before falling in the OHL Championship series to the London Knights in five games. Despite dropping the final series, the experience of a grueling playoff run was invaluable for Oleksiak.
Another interesting aspect in Niagara this season was that one of Oleksiak’s teammates was forward Brett Ritchie, a second-round pick by the Stars in last June’s NHL Draft. Ritchie was dealt to the Ice Dogs from the Sarnia Sting on January 5, just four days before Niagara would acquire his fellow Dallas draftee.
“I think (Brett) Ritchie’s an unbelievable player. He does a great job with his body, he gets to the net, capitalizes on scoring chances and I think he’s been a big part of the team in Niagara,” Oleksiak said. “He’s definitely a special player and will definitely contribute at the next level as well. I think having the opportunity to play with him definitely helps both of us out and gives us some familiarity that I’m really fortunate for.”
And yes, the two do discuss being part of the same organization fairly often, something that remains a big source of pride for these two up-and-comers.
It’s huge because it’s obviously a real honor to be part of the Stars organization. They’ve been fantastic,” Oleksiak said. “They’re always willing to offer suggestions and offer their opinions. Whenever I need help, I can just give them a shout. I’m really fortunate to be part of the organization, have guys I can look up to and talk to knowing that they’re going to help me out and make sure I’m the best player I can possibly be. I’m really happy to be part of it and I’m really excited to see where it goes. I can’t say enough about the organization.”
Much has been written about the Stars likely having Oleksiak on the fast track, meaning this could be his one and only season in the junior ranks before he makes another jump, to the American Hockey League.
Still, he’s played the game long enough to realize when certain things are out of his hands. And he knows this is one of those decisions, so whatever route the club’s powers-that-be choose for him going forward, it’s a process he clearly looks forward to being part of as he continues his progression toward the ultimate goal of making his NHL debut.
“Obviously, nothing’s guaranteed and I don’t expect anything to be handed to me. I want to work for it and I think the Stars feel the same way,” Oleksiak said. “They’re not really planning on making a commitment one way or another in terms of guaranteeing me a spot somewhere. So I think as long as I’m putting in the work, going and showing them what they’re looking for that I’ll be OK. Hopefully it’s what they want.”