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Penguins

Jamie Oleksiak free to be himself with Penguins

Jonathan Bombulie
| Friday, July 13, 2018, 12:57 p.m.
Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak battles the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin for the puck during the second period in Game 2 of an their second-round playoff series, Sunday, April 29, 2018, in Washington.
Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak battles the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin for the puck during the second period in Game 2 of an their second-round playoff series, Sunday, April 29, 2018, in Washington.

When Jamie Oleksiak joined the Penguins in a trade in December, it would have been perfectly reasonable for him to be nervous about meeting expectations.

He had confidence in his abilities, but his progress in Dallas was slow. In five-plus seasons in the Stars organization after being taken in the first round of the 2011 draft, Oleksiak had only nudged his way onto the team’s third defense pair.

He was coming to a team where incremental personal growth probably wouldn’t be enough. The Penguins had championship aspirations. He had to help them win.

“It’s a team that just came off of two Cups, and I was obviously a guy that was kind of in and out of the lineup,” Oleksiak said Friday. “Coming in, I wasn’t really established or anything like that.”

Although there is still room for improvement – bottom line, the Penguins didn’t get the three-peat they were seeking last season – Oleksiak established himself in seven months in black and gold. He will go into next season as a top-six defensemen, expected to handle a relatively heavy workload as the team commits to balance on the blue line.

The contract he signed Thursday, a three-year deal with an average annual salary of $2,137,500, shows where he stands.

“I couldn’t have landed in a better spot, a team that’s willing to work with me,” Oleksiak said. “Obviously, I praise the coaches and the players and the D men we have. Just getting a chance to work with those guys in the future, I can only see my game getting better. I think I’ve learned so much this past half a year. The next three years, I just want to make the most of it.”

Pittsburgh turned out to be a good spot for Oleksiak for a couple of important reasons.

First, the Penguins never asked him to be something he’s not.

Oleksiak is 6-foot-7, 255 pounds. He recorded 174 hits and seven fighting majors last season. Physicality is part of his game, but it’s probably not the most important part. When Oleksiak’s at his best, he isn’t snarling while he bulldozes opponents away from the front of the net. He’s quickly retrieving a puck with his long reach and starting the breakout. He’s more comfortable joining the rush than delivering a barrage of cross-checks in the corner.

That’s fine with the Penguins.

They’re one of the NHL teams at the forefront of a shift in defensive philosophy that’s prevalent in the modern game. Even if a player wins every single battle in the defensive zone, he’s still in the defensive zone. Being in the offensive zone is better.

“The one thing that kind of stands out is just how tuned this group is for the new game, kind of a fast, puck-moving game,” Oleksiak said. “We’ve got guys that kind of do a little bit of everything, but the big thing is being able to move the puck quickly and get it up to our forwards, because obviously we’ve got a lot of firepower up front. It meshes well with the game.”

Second, the Penguins have a coaching staff equipped to give Oleksiak what he needs to succeed.

In a half-season with the Penguins, Oleksiak said Jacques Martin has improved his understanding of penalty killing concepts and Sergei Gonchar helped his overall game in a number of ways, from stick position to gap control to finding avenues to better utilize his powerful shot.

“I can’t say enough about those guys and how much they’ve helped me out and how willing they are to put in the extra time after practice or away from the rink to really help me develop my game,” Oleksiak said. “I think having those guys was huge for me last year and to get another three years to work with them and fine-tune some things, it was a great opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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