By Kirk Luedeke
If the Boston Bruins have learned anything over the past five years, it is the value of having a towering, dual-threat star like Zdeno Chara on defense.
One prospect for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft who brings similar size and potential is Northeastern University standout Jamie Oleksiak, who should be on the board when the B’s pick at ninth overall a little less than two weeks from now. At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds, Oleksiak recently performed well at the NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto, where he wowed NHL teams and their strength and conditioning staffs with his athleticism and power.
“I think it took a lot of hard work,” Oleksiak said after completing the fitness evaluation portion of the combine. “I had a lot of people helping me to get ready (for the tests) and the work paid off.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Oleksiak has dual citizenship because his father is a Buffalo, N.Y., native. The 18-year-old defender was a final cut on the U.S. National Under-20 team back in December and should make the 2012 club that will try and win gold in Calgary this winter after failing to defend its 2010 title.
A graduate of the USHL with the Chicago Steel and Sioux Falls Stampede, Oleksiak had a strong first season in the Hockey East with Northeastern, impressing scouts with his mobility, puck skills and, above all, gargantuan size.
“I did that to get more opportunities,” Oleksiak said, of his decision to play in the USHL after leaving Crestwood Prep in North York, Ont. “I needed to challenge myself before going to (the NCAA), and I had some good experiences playing junior hockey and developing at that level.”
Although opinions are divided as to his ultimate potential as a two-way defenseman in the NHL, some scouts are unabashed in their views that Oleksiak will one day be a legitimate No. 1.
“(Oleksiak’s) a terrific talent. Whoever takes him is getting a 16-year starter who can do everything,” Central Scouting’s Garry Eggleston (Wakefield, Mass.) told hockeyjournal.com. “He’s such a good passer. I remember seeing him play in two games, and his pass completion rate was 100 percent. He sees the ice well and has a big shot. I think he’s only beginning to show what he’s capable of.”
Eggleston’s views reflect a growing sentiment that there is more than meets the eye with the former rugby player who brings a physical edge, and skates with that same brand of shutdown ability coupled with a dimension of offense that could see him evolve into a legitimate No. 1 one day.
“I see myself as a player similar to Zdeno Chara,” Oleksiak said. “Obviously, I have similar size and I think I can move pretty well. I’m still working on my feet but I’m finishing my checks and playing well defensively. I’m pretty good with the puck and can make offensive plays up the ice and on the power play.”
In 38 games as a freshman, Oleksiak scored four goals and 13 points to go with 57 penalty minutes. It was a solid if unspectacular performance, but the real appeal with him is how rapidly he’s developed over the last 18 months.
“I went to see him last season and aside from the size, he was pretty raw and gangly,” said one NHL director of amateur scouting recently. “Watching him this year, I couldn’t believe I was looking at the same guy. He’s made amazing progress in a very short time.”
As a December, 1992 birthdate, Oleksiak is enjoying some good timing and fortune. Had he been eligible for the 2010 draft, his size would likely have gotten him drafted in the sixth or seventh round. However, given the extra season to grow into his body and how well he moves in his draft year compared to his final USHL campaign, Oleksiak has earned a first-round nod.
The conventional thought with him among the scouting community is that even if he never develops the offense of a Chara or Buffalo star Tyler Myers, his size and mobility means that he will at least play an effective shutdown role in the NHL. Given Hal Gill’s (Bolton, Mass.) success as a big-leaguer with over 1,000 games under his belt, but who doesn’t have Oleksiak’s feet or passing ability, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see the prospect go pretty close to 10th overall because he’s such an athlete.
Oleksiak’s father, Richard, was a multi-sport star at Buffalo’s Nichols School and went on to letter in track at Colgate. The senior Oleksiak passed on his physical and competitive prowess to his children. As one of five siblings, older brother, Jake, played hockey for Clarkson. He also has an elder sister and two younger ones, both of whom are standout athletes as well (one is a hockey player and rower; the other is a swimmer).
“My dad still has an inch on me but I think I’m going to try and pass him,” said Oleksiak, when asked if he had finished growing. Even if he doesn’t add any more to his impressive height, one NHL team’s strength and conditioning coach felt that he will play at about 260-270 pounds when he reaches his full physical maturity.
With the pre-draft combine complete, all that awaits Oleksiak is learning where he will end up on draft day.
With size, natural strength and agility that can’t be taught, Oleksiak should be a prized commodity on draft day.
Kirk Luedeke can be reached at email@example.com.