Oleksiak looming big on the Dallas horizon

by Samantha Wood || for NHL.com

When Jamie Oleksiak is on the ice, there’s no missing him.

At 6-foot-7 and 254 pounds, the young man they call “Big Rig” is a beacon in the Texas Stars roster and among the biggest players in the American Hockey League.

“In the AHL, I’ve played with big guys and they’re used to the competition and know how to handle dealing with guys that are bigger than them,” Oleksiak said of his size. “They’re good at using their strength to their advantage.”

The rookie defenseman’s prospects for NHL success are just as big.

A 20-year-old Toronto native, Oleksiak made stops at Northeastern University and the OHL before joining the Texas Stars this season. He said it is in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park, with Dallas’ primary affiliate, that he has learned how to be a professional.

“I can’t say enough about the AHL,” he said. “I can’t stress enough how great it’s been. There are a lot of veteran guys that have helped to show us young guys the path and what it takes to get to that level.”

The 14th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft made his National Hockey League debut Feb. 1 and went on to log 16 games with Dallas over the rest of the 2012-13 regular season.

“The AHL has been huge to help me get used to the pro lifestyle and how to take care of myself,” Oleksiak said. “I’m getting my footing and hopefully when I get the chance to get back to the NHL, I’ll be more prepared.

“It was really overwhelming to play in the game and look around on the ice and in the locker room and see guys that you’ve grown up watching,” he continued. “Getting drafted was huge for me too, but it doesn’t quite hit you until you’re actually on the ice with the guys and feel like part of the team.”

Helping Oleksiak on his path to a permanent spot in the Dallas lineup is first-year Texas head coach Willie Desjardins.

“As the year’s gone on, he’s taken more and more of a role,” Desjardins said of Oleksiak’s impact. “He’s on the power play now and taking more time on the penalty kill. His role has certainly increased from the start of the year, as has his game.

“He was a young guy still feeling out the league with lots of talent, but still a little unsure. But now he’s stepping up and playing with more confidence.”

Bolstered by that confidence, Oleksiak wrapped up his first professional regular season as Texas’ top scoring defenseman with six goals and 27 assists for 33 points and a plus-19 rating in his 59 games.

With all the talent on the Texas blue line, Oleksiak’s success is even more impressive. He is one of several bright defense prospects in the Stars organization, a group that also includes Brenden Dillon, Philip Larsen, Kevin Connauton, Joe Morrow, Cameron Gaunce and Jordie Benn.

“Competition brings out the best in us,” said Desjardins, who won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s coach of the year for 2012-13. “It’s a chance for Jamie to become the player he’s capable of being.

“If it happens easy then maybe you don’t have to develop the habits, but it doesn’t happen easy here. Overall it’s been great for his development and it’s great to have guys pushing him.”

As the top seed in the Western Conference, Oleksiak, Desjardins, and the rest of the Texas Stars eliminated the Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville’s top affiliate) in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, and are now facing a formidable Oklahoma City Barons squad (Edmonton) in the conference semifinals.

“We’re just focusing on what we have to do to win,” Oleksiak said. “OKC is a great team, and we know what we need to do to win. We’ll just go out there and play a hard game and not think too far ahead. You can’t take any games for granted in the playoffs and I think we’re prepared for it.”

Desjardins echoed Oleksiak’s attitude.

“It’s a trial by fire,” he said. “We have to go through it and nobody can predict what’s going to happen. He’s a good player and he’ll do well, but that’s what he has to prove every night. And that’s what the playoffs do. You can have a bad shift and it can cost you a game. It makes everyone play their best.”

A big man with big dreams, Oleksiak said he won’t shy away from the challenges that the playoffs and life as a professional hockey player present.

“It’s a long path and it’s going to take a lot from each guy, but I think we’re doing a good job to make sure everyone’s ready,” he said.

“The ultimate goal is to win games and I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen, whether it’s up in Dallas or here in Austin.”