It would be hard to call Jamie Oleksiak’s tenure in Dallas a failure since getting 100+ games out of a draft pick has value, but no one is rushing to call it a success either. The former first round pick is still stuck in hockey limbo, trying to establish whether he can be a legitimate NHL player or not.
So far in training camp it seems like he’s making the most of an opportunity with a new coaching staff. After practice on Friday Hitchcock told reporters:
"The one guy that is really emerging to us as a surprise is Oleksiak. He is taking things to another level, which is really impressive for us," Hitchcock said. "He's cool under fire, he's competitive as heck from the dots to the boards, and he's playing really sound right now. He's an interesting candidate to maybe even look at playing on the right side."
The head coach's praise continued past Friday as well.
Hitchcock continues to sing the praises of D Jamie Oleksiak. "He was great again last night. Touch wood, he's getting better every day."— Mark Stepneski (@StarsInsideEdge) September 24, 2017
If it sounds like we’ve heard this before it’s because we have. We hear about improvements to players like Oleksiak and Patrik Nemeth, but when the real lights come they've failed to execute. Turnovers, mental errors, poor passing, and poor defensive coverage are among the many problems we consistently see.
I think it would be foolish to completely write this off as posturing on the part of the Stars coaching staff.
Many of the errors mentioned can be minimized under a predictable system that doesn’t force players to think and overanalyze plays. For all of the potential warts of what life under Hitchcock is perceived to be, an overly complicated system that routinely puts players in poor situations isn’t a criticism you can expect to see. Theoretically this situation is perfect for both Oleksiak and Nemeth.
Oleksiak so far is the one taking the most advantage. Through two preseason games he’s humming along at a 70% Corsi for percentage at even strength. That’s going to play regardless of whatever flaws a player may have. Two preseason games won't eliminate a career body of work, but seeing tangible proof of improvement is a good sign either way.
The challenge will be fitting him on the roster. John Klingberg, Dan Hamhuis, Esa Lindell, and Marc Methot will definitely be there. I can’t imagine how the team can send Julius Honka back down. Stephen Johns seems safe. That’s six names penciled in. If the Stars keep seven defenders that leaves one (or I guess two) spot(s) for Oleksiak, Nemeth, and Greg Pateryn.
All three of the remaining roster candidates will need to go through waivers to be sent to the AHL or sent away in trade. Good money is on Pateryn being one of those dealt. I can’t imagine the Stars carrying eight defensemen again, but I feel like I’ve said the same thing for twenty years at this point. One of Nemeth or Oleksiak seems likely to go too.
A player hitting waivers doesn’t guarantee that they will be claimed. There are many bad teams who could take a flier on a young defender to see if they work well under their system, but the Vegas Golden Knights roster is going to add an extra layer of uncertainty.
Las Vegas has eleven NHL defensemen right now so there are four more comparable guys hitting the market. How many teams would realistically acquire defensemen this late in the game? It isn’t out of the question that the Stars could waive two defenders and not lose either one.
At this point if that does happen Oleksiak has made the strongest case to be the last man standing. Healthy skepticism should still remain about the player he will ultimately become, but he is having a wonderful training camp en route to hopefully turning his career around.