Penguins keep fight club open with Jamie Oleksiak
General manager Jim Rutherford hasn’t changed his position on the need for muscle in the Penguins lineup.
As long as the team has stars, and as long as opponents try to knock those stars off their games with physical play, he wants someone on his team who can take matters into his own clenched fists when the situation calls for it.
In the last year, though, the identity of the man who wields those fists has changed.
At the start of last season, it was Ryan Reaves, the most intimidating player in the game. If fighting ability wasn’t No. 1 on his list of positive hockey attributes, it was in the top two.
At the start of next season, it will be Jamie Oleksiak, a stay-at-home defenseman who, on most nights, worries much more about keeping the puck out of his net than punching opponents in the jaw.
The way the game’s going, that probably is a step forward for the Penguins.
“When we were able to get Jamie, and he was a regular in our lineup, we felt that we could move Reaves at that point,” Rutherford said. “Bringing that part to the team, being a good team guy and being able to protect players when things get out of control certainly helps.”
Don’t get Rutherford wrong. He doesn’t consider the Reaves trade a mistake. He sent Oskar Sundqvist and a first-round pick to St. Louis for the hulking winger and a second-round pick at last year’s draft, and he’d do it again.
(Rutherford isn’t afraid to admit a mistake, either. Matt Hunwick’s Buffalo Sabres jersey is proof positive of that.)
“It’s important for our team,” Rutherford said. “We have players that the opposing team likes to take shots at. It was important for us, coming off two championships, to have Reaves on our team. He settled things down while he was here.”
But while Rutherford still speaks highly of Reaves, it’s safe to say the Oleksiak plan makes things a little easier on everyone involved.
Coach Mike Sullivan had to go out of his way to try to get shifts for Reaves, finding less than seven minutes per game on average. Conversely, if fighting were outlawed tomorrow, Oleksiak still would play more than double that every night.
Last year, Reaves was one of six players in the league who recorded at least five fights while averaging less than 10 minutes per game. Twenty years ago, 43 players hit those thresholds.
Few still subscribe to Fred Shero’s theory about teams that can’t win in the alley not winning on the ice.
“Being a bigger guy, obviously you’re going to have to be put in those situations, and you’re going to have to answer the bell, but the game’s definitely a little bit newer,” Oleksiak said. “I don’t think, in terms of a traditional enforcer, you can just be a pure fighter. I think you have to have a well-rounded game, and you can’t be a liability on the ice.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as an enforcer, per se, but a defensive defenseman that makes his presence known physically.”
After signing a new three-year contract this week, Oleksiak looks like the man who will provide the most muscle for the Penguins for the foreseeable future.
He’s fine with that. He was the man who issued an unanswered challenge to Tom Wilson after the Washington winger felled Zach Aston-Reese with an illegal hit in the playoffs. He was the man who squared off with 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara when a game with Boston went sideways in March.
He will continue to do those things. He just won’t be defined by them.
“That’s kind of one way to contribute that’s a little bit different,” Oleksiak said. “I’m maybe not so much the power-play QB kind of guy, but I like to think I can move the puck well and, at the same time, kind of lay the body down physically. It’s a different game now, but there’s still a place for it a little bit.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.