He’s built to play basketball and enjoys using his size in football, a la Randy Moss.
But after Friday, there will be no doubt what sport will be Jamie Oleksiak’s career choice, and that’s hockey.
The Northeastern sophomore-to-be enters Friday’s NHL Entry Draft as the highest-rated player with collegiate ties. Oleksiak, who stands 6-foot-7 on the Northeastern blue line, is ranked 13th among North American skaters and projects to be a first-round pick according to most scouts.
Growing up in Toronto, Oleksiak was a three-sport athlete, having played basketball and football along with hockey. He said he really enjoyed using his height in football and that, having a father that played the game, basketball came natural for a big guy.
But, not surprisingly in a land where hockey reigns supreme, it was the game played on ice that prevailed.
It also seems that it will be the sport that pays dividends as Oleksiak’s stock has consistently risen, particularly after a freshman year at Northeastern where the blueliner stood head and shoulders above the rest, literally and figuratively.
As a freshman, Oleksiak quickly became a leader on the Huskies’ blue line, quarterbacking the power play while also showing great responsibility in the defensive zone. His game, many say and Oleksiak agrees, resembles a player who plays just down the street from Northeastern’s Matthews Arena: Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins.
“Being in Boston, I get to watch him a lot,” Oleksiak said of Chara. “I enjoy his style of play. He can contribute at both ends of the ice and he’s reliable in both situations. He can jump into the play and he has that bomb from the point. That’s who I look to emulate.”
That may be music to the ears of NHL general managers who will look to scoop up the rights to Oleksiak this Friday when the draft opens in St. Paul, Minn.
Oleksiak, however, is realistic about the player he is today. He said it took a lot of effort to adjust to the speed of the college game, particularly when it came to stopping smaller players.
The giant on the blue line said that working on his footwork and his ability to move quickly was something that didn’t come easy. He said the coaching staff at Northeastern was patient and worked with him constantly, something that paid dividends as the season progressed.
Another challenge was not letting smaller players get under his skin.
“My biggest challenge was dealing with the smaller guys,” Oleksiak said. “You can’t fight so you don’t have enforcers, so you sometimes have little guys who take liberties. I think I was able to overcome that.”
And the speed that these players presented?
“I was able to handle the smaller guys as the season went on using my footwork and lateral movement. It’s something I’m still working on, being a bigger guy.”
Besides simply improving footwork, there is one other aspect of Oleksiak’s game that NHL scouts would like to see: offensively production. If he wants to be the two-way player that Chara is for the Bruins, he knows that he’ll have to improve his shot and his overall offensive ability.
In one year on the Huskies blue line, that certainly developed. He may have been overshadowed a bit by fellow rookie Anthony Bitetto, who proved himself a solid offensive force.
But Oleksiak proved he could get involved offensively. He posted 13 points (4 goals, 9 assists) in 38 games as a rookie for Northeastern. That’s a step up from his final season in the USHL, where he posted 14 points in 53 games.
Most importantly, Oleksiak proved successfully that he can use his size to his advantage. Scouts say that he may not be the most physical defenseman but that he’s able to effectively use his size.
Right now, he’s been tagged with the label of defensive defenseman, something he doesn’t really mind.
“You can really work on your shot throughout your career but it’s important to develop habits early on in terms of fast footwork,” Oleksiak said. “That’s really crucial in college hockey, especially with bigger guys at the next level. It doesn’t help if you have a big shot if that’s one goal a night and you’re getting walked around and scored on. My real focus was the fast feet. The shot will come.”
It’s not yet known whether Oleksiak will be faced with a decision this summer on whether to leave the friendly confines of a college campus to begin an NHL career. If that’s the case, Oleksiak said he’s comfortable but that he’s also happy to spend more time developing physically and working on his game.
“It depends on what the team [that drafts me] is looking for,” Oleksiak said. “I think if I continue my development, I could play professional hockey fairly soon. If I spend a little more time [at Northeastern], I’d be able to refine my game and make it better overall.
“But I think as long as I continue to work hard over the summer and get bigger and stronger, I have that ability to be playing [professionally] pretty soon. Whether they’re looking at me next year or three years from now, all I can do is prepare.”