Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak is expected to make the jump to pro hockey this season, and as a first-round draft pick there is going to be pressure and expectations – a subject in which Oleksiak is well versed.
Consider what he’s done over the past year. He had to decide whether to stay in college or change his development path to play major junior hockey. He chose the junior route.
There was a decision to be made on whether he would play for Canada or the United States at the 2012 World Junior Championship. He chose Canada.
“Last year was big for me in terms of making decisions about where I was going to play, which country I was going to represent,” Oleksiak said. “And there was coming to camp as the first-round pick of the Dallas Stars. There was pressure and it was a little tense at times.”
There was more, such as playing for Canada in Canada at the World Juniors. There were high expectations after a midseason trade landed him with one of the top teams in the Ontario Hockey League.
And once the ice shavings had settled on his season, the 6-foot-7, 240-pound defenseman appeared ready to take the next step in his hockey career. Each of those decisions and challenges he faced help put him on firmer ground as he prepared to move forward.
“Oleksiak had a very good season,” said Les Jackson, Dallas Stars director of player personnel. “The move from college to junior was a good one, and all the reports were really positive. He made some really good strides this year.”
Oleksiak, selected in the first-round (14th overall) in 2011, decided last summer to leave Northeastern University and sign on with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. The move to juniors would allow him to play more games and on a schedule comparable to the pro level.
“It was phenomenal. Juniors did a world of good for me; it is similar to the pro game. That’s obviously my ultimate goal,” Oleksiak said. “To play a schedule like that and to play with players who have the potential to play pro hockey was definitely an advantage for me.”
The midseason trade sent him from Saginaw to the Niagara IceDogs, who were stocking up on talent for a run at the OHL championship and a run at the Memorial Cup. The move was a boost for Oleksiak. After putting up 11 points in 31 games with Saginaw, he registered 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) in 28 games with Niagara. The IceDogs fell short of their goal, losing to London in the OHL Finals, but it was still a positive experience for Oleksiak.
“I felt sturdy in Niagara and that it was a solid place for me,” Oleksiak said. “I think I really grew from it, playing with guys like Dougie Hamilton, Luke Mercer and Brett Ritchie, our second-round pick last year. They’re all great players you can learn from, and really develop your game. It was a huge step for me to go into Niagara, and another great experience.”
So was the World Junior Championship, which was played in Edmonton and Calgary. But before he suited up for Team Canada, there was that decision whether to play for the Canadians or the Americans. Oleksiak has dual citizenship and could have played for either country. He had played for the U.S. at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, but never in an IIHF event such as the World Juniors. Once a player suits up for a country in an IIHF event he is locked in to play for that country internationally.
“I was split because I had represented the USA earlier,” he said. “My father is from the U.S., but being born in Toronto I felt it was more appropriate to play for Canada.”
Oleksiak had no points and a plus-four rating in six games for Canada, which won the bronze medal.
“There are no words that can describe playing for your home country and on your home soil,” said Oleksiak. “We were playing in Calgary and Edmonton, and the fans were loud. It’s similar to the pro culture and something I can take moving forward and learn from. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
“That was a great experience for him to measure himself against the best players in his age group in the world,” said Jackson. “He did well there.”
And all that has set the stage for Oleksiak to move on to the pro level. There’s a lot to like about the defenseman, especially that size. But there’s more to his game than that, and that’s what makes him an exciting prospect.
“He’s big, he’s got really good puck skills,” said Jackson. “There’s more than just being a defending player there. That will be a big part of his game. He’s big, he’s a penalty killer, he covers a lot of ice and he has a good stick. This guy has some unique abilities. We’re just going to have to nurture it and help him grow.”
Oleksiak is expected to play with the Texas Stars of the AHL this season, and after having dealt with a lot over the past year he seems poised to be a pro.
“This year I can come in with a clear mind. Last year, you feel the weight of the pressure and you just deal with it,” he said. “There’s still more I have to do before I move on. I am taking it one step at a time. I am trying not to rush anything. I am trying not to look ahead. I’m just trying to develop as a player and reach my ultimate potential. “
And the Stars expect the big defenseman to take big steps forward on that development over the next year.
“He’ll have Willie Desjardins (head coach) and Doug Lidster (assistant coach) in Texas. He’ll get good instruction, good competition and he’s going to get challenged against men every night,” said Jackson. “I suspect he’ll have some bumps as most first-year guys do, but he certainly has the ability to absorb those bumps, grow and develop. I look for big things from him.”