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Things were a bit awkward for Jamie Oleksiak last Christmas.
Traveling home to Toronto during the NHL’s holiday break in December, he was stopped at a New York-Ontario border crossing and asked if he was traveling for business or pleasure.
It was pleasure, as he was visiting his family.
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He then had to explain the nasty piece of business on his face.
“I had a black eye there crossing the border,” Oleksiak said. “I had to go the whole length, the description, with the border (guard).”
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Oleksiak’s description of his bruised cosmetic appearance may have taken longer than how he received the black eye.
A handful of days earlier, on Dec. 19, he was jumped by long-time Penguins nemesis Tom Wilson during a road game against the Washington Capitals and dropped by a right hand from Wilson.
So, let this season go. If things turn around, fans will remember the Stars’ miracle. Along the way, don’t tarnish your prospects with the stink.
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If things don’t turn around, figure out how hockey needs to be played in Dallas. Make a real, organization-wide plan. This is something that is above Jim Montgomery’s pay grade. It’s beyond GM Jim Nill. This is C-Suite and owner “horses**t” and it goes straight to the heart of a “culture of mediocrity.”
Organizations that don’t have a clear vision of their goals and how to get there flounder. The Dallas Stars are flopping around on the deck wondering how they got out of the water.
Of course, there is still a hockey game to be played. Pittsburgh also finds themselves with aging superstars, but with a handful of Stanley Cup rings to go with them. Yet, the Penguins are off to a 5-2-0 start to what was supposed to be a transition year for the team.
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Sidney Crosby is still in the conversation for top of the league in offensive talent. Pittsburgh has scored seven goals three times this year, and their only losses came when they scored one goal. They are averaging more than four goals per game, and those goals are coming from all four lines. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Injuries have been an issue for the Penguins, most notably with Evgeni Malkin out for a month with a leg injury. In fact, the entire projected second line is out of action, turning the fourth line into a trio of AHL call-ups.
Media: “There are so many AHL guys here. Do you find yourself doing more hands-on instruction because they are younger guys who don’t have as much NHL experience?”
Coach Sullivan: “For me, they’re not AHL players. They are Pittsburgh Penguins and that’s how we look at them.”
5:46 AM – Oct 18, 2019
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Pittsburgh’s defense has been surprisingly good, with Kris Letang and Justin Schultz leading the first and second pairs. The left side may be the Penguin’s weakness, Marcus Pettersson finding himself moved to the second pairing and Jack Johnson playing on the third pair. How Jamie Oleksiak worked his way out of a starting role on the Penguins’ left side should be a serious question.
In net, Matt Murray has taken six of the seven starts, and remains a solid backstop. Tristan Jarry is the reliably mediocre backup.
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Dallas Stars Lineup
Jason Dickinson (18) – Tyler Seguin (91) – Alexander Radulov (47)
Jamie Benn (14) – Roope Hintz (24) – Corey Perry (10)
Mattias Janmark (13) – Radek Faksa (12) -Joe Pavelski (16)
Andrew Cogliano (11) – Justin Dowling (37) – Denis Gurianov (34)
Esa Lindell (23) – John Klingberg (3)
Andrej Sekera (5) – Miro Heiskanen (4)
Jamie Oleksiak (2) – Taylor Fedun (42)
Anton Khudobin (35)
Oleksiak’s time in Pittsburgh didn’t last much longer after that as the Penguins traded him to a place he’s familiar with.
Initially acquired by the Penguins in December of 2017 for a fourth-round pick in 2019, he was traded back to the Stars 13 months later this past January for the same draft pick.
“Getting traded back for the same pick and everything … it’s been an interesting journey,” Oleksiak said. “You kind of go somewhere you’re familiar with, the guys in the locker room. I’m happy to be back.”
The Stars seems satisfied to have him back. He’s been a steady player for a team that began the season with a wretched 1-6-1 mark. Despite primarily being used as a third-pairing defenseman along with Taylor Fedun, Oleksiak was one of only 17 defensemen with at least two primary assists in the NHL in five-on-five play prior to Friday’s games. Only Ryan Ellis (five) of the Nashville Predators and John Carlson (three) of the Washington Capitals have more according to Natural Stat Trick.
“Lots of confidence, composure back there,” said Stars forward Tyler Seguin, when asked what’s different about Oleksiak in his second stint with the team. “His decision making. He’s really just grown into how big and strong he is and using that. He’s been great for us this year.”
“He’s given us real important minutes,” said coach Jim Montgomery. “He’s separated people from pucks (and) he’s transitioned pucks out of our end really well for us.”
Drafted in the first round (No. 14 overall) by the Stars in 2011, Oleksiak rarely lived up to that billing during his first stint in Dallas and was a frequent scratch under different coaches. The Penguins, with the prodding of assistant coach Sergei Gonchar, briefly a teammate of Oleksiak in Dallas, acquired him in hopes of tapping some unrealized potential.
“Getting a chance to be a regular in Pittsburgh and playing in the playoffs and getting all the experience, you learn you can handle it,” said Oleksiak, who made his postseason debut with the Penguins in 2018. “You’re confident that you can play and kind of learn different tendencies of what you need to do to play big minutes. Instead of playing not to make mistakes, I was playing to make sure we won the game and I was an effective player out there. It was a good experience.”
Oleksiak didn’t erase any scoring records in Pittsburgh, but he enjoyed the most production of his career with the Penguins. In 83 career games, he scored 25 points. With the Stars, he had played 169 career games prior to Friday and also scored 25 points.
After re-signing him as a restricted free agent to a three-year deal with a salary cap hit of $2.1375 million during the 2018 offseason, the Penguins dealt Oleksiak back to Dallas in part to clear salary in order to add forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann via a trade last February.
“Whenever you get traded, I think it’s a bit of a surprise, no matter what the situation is,” Oleksiak said. “I feel like it was a pretty big shakeup overall with that squad. There’s not a whole lot of guys left (from Oleksiak’s time with the team). Obviously, the core is still there, the big guys. Whenever you get traded, it always kind of catches you off guard. It’s the nature of the business.”
His second taste of the postseason was brief last spring as a knee injury limited him to four playoff games. The Stars lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in overtime in Game 7 of the second round. Had Dallas moved on to the Western Conference final or beyond, Oleksiak thinks he could have returned to the lineup.
“That was really tough,” he said. “Obviously, playoffs, you want to really be out there trying to push through it. It was frustrating because I felt good in that first series there against Nashville. Who knows what could have happened in St. Louis? You want to be out there competing with the boys, especially when it was so close. Game 7, one goal to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. It’s a tough pill to swallow.
“Going through that has woken me up a little bit to how fragile it is, just a career in general. You don’t know what could happen and you just have to make the most of the opportunities you have.”