It wasn’t hard to pick out Dallas Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak at the team’s practice in Frisco Thursday morning. At 6-7, 254 pounds he stands out in a crowd. But there’s more to Oleksiak than just size, and that’s why his NHL debut on Friday night against the Phoenix Coyotes at American Airlines Center is creating a buzz.
“He’s gifted for a big man,” said Stars assistant coach Paul Jerrard. “He’s got size, he’s got strength, he can skate well and he’s got really good hands for a big man. You don’t see that combination come along too often.”
And the Stars think now is the time for Oleksiak – probably the team’s top prospect – to come along and see if he can help out on the blue line.
“We want to get a little heavier in some of these games on the backend, and he’s played so well in the American Hockey League,” said Stars coach Glen Gulutzan. “Like our other young defensemen, he deserves an opportunity. We want to give him a chance to see what he can do.”
Oleksiak, Dallas’ first round pick (14th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, is in his first professional season, and he’s been outstanding. He’s leading Texas Stars defensemen in scoring with 23 points (3 goals, 20 assists) in 43 games. His plus-12 rating is second highest on the team. He was voted in as a starter for the AHL All-Star Game, which was played earlier this week.
Oleksiak, who turned 20 in December, was surprised he got the call Wednesday to say he was headed to the NHL.
“It’s a huge honor. I wasn’t really expecting it,” Oleksiak said. “I was sitting on my couch, playing video games, waiting for the All-Star break to end and I got a call from our GM down in Texas (Scott White), saying I was getting called up. It’s definitely really exciting. I am glad to be here and I am going to try to make the most of the opportunity.”
Oleksiak’s path to the NHL has been quick and impressive. Three seasons ago he was playing in the USHL. There was one season at Boston University and then one season in major junior. He could have spent this season in junior hockey, but the Stars thought he was ready for the pro ranks. Now, after a little more than half a season in the AHL, they think he deserves a look at the NHL level.
“It’s a pretty surreal feeling. My goal has always been to play in the NHL, but if you told me three years ago that I would be here now, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Oleksiak said. “I just kept my head down and kept working, tried to stay as modest as possible and tried to make the most of my opportunities.”
The Toronto native will try to make the most of this latest opportunity by doing what he does best – make the most of his size and his ability to move the puck.
“Play a solid defensive game, use my size and my stick to my advantage, move the puck well and be a physical body presence back there,” Oleksiak said. “You don’t want to get nervous. They call you up for a reason, and I am going to try to do my job and hopefully contribute to my team as much as possible.”
And while he’ll try to keep the nerves under control, the excitement for his first NHL game is pretty high.
“It’s going to be phenomenal,” he said. “I am going to have some family flying down. It’s going to be exciting to finally play in front of the crowd down here in Dallas. I am just going to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
“There are a lot of similarities. One thing I would say if I could take a look at both those guys, I know that Chara is a couple inches bigger, and Jamie is a lot more smoother and polished in his first couple years than Chara.”
-Stars assistant coach Paul Jerrard, who was on the coaching staff of Lowell (AHL) in the late 1990’s when Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-9/255 pounds) played there early in his professional career.
One for the record books
When Jamie Oleksiak hits the ice Friday night, he’ll immediately set a franchise record of sorts – tallest player in franchise history at 6-7. Here’s a list of tallest players in franchise history to date as compiled by the team’s PR staff:
Sami Helenius 6’6”
Archie Henderson 6’6”
Dean Kolstad 6’6”
Dave Richter 6’5”
Chris Therien 6’5”
Brad Winchester 6’5”
Enrico Ciccone 6’5”
Derian Hatcher 6’5”