When the Caps signed defenseman Steve Oleksy to an NHL contract and recalled him to Washington on March 3, they knew they were getting a rugged, right-handed defenseman who would bring grit and toughness to the lineup on a nightly basis. The Caps have certainly been pleased with Olesky’s play in his own end of the ice, and that’s his primary job description. In his last 13 games, he has been on the ice for 11 even-strength goals for and just three even-strength goals against.
What the Caps may not have bargained for is the impact Oleksy has had offensively in the NHL.
A total of 195 defensemen have played in at least 20 games in the NHL this season. Among that group, Oleksy is tied for 48th with .41 points per game. The other defensemen that also have .41 points per game this season are Boston’s Zdeno Chara, Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen and New Jersey’s Marek Zidlicky. During his 107-game ECHL career, Oleksy averaged .36 points per game, and he was at .27 points per game in 122 games at the AHL level.
With a goal and nine points in 22 games since coming up from Hershey, Oleksy ranks third among all Caps defensemen in scoring this season. Oleksy has been effective at pinching from the point, one of the tenets of Caps coach Adam Oates’ system. Oates gives his defensemen more free reign to pinch, and Washington’s forwards have been diligent about making sure they fill in when a blueliner runs down the wall to keep a puck alive in the attack zone.
“I think a lot of it has to do with our system and our forwards are playing the system very well,” says Oleksy. “So we’re able to make that decision a lot easier; we don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to take that extra-second look to see if somebody is back. I think we’re playing real well as a team in general. We’re reading off each other and it’s an easy read for a defenseman knowing that your forward is back and covering you, to jump down that wall and try to make something happen, to keep the play in their zone.”
A recent example of an Oleksy pinch that resulted in a goal occurred on Tuesday night in Montreal. Oleksy jumped down the right wing wall to keep a puck alive in the attack zone, pushing it indirectly off the opposite wall to partner Jack Hillen. Hillen’s shot clicked off Caps winger Eric Fehr and went past Canadiens’ netminder Carey Price to give the Caps a 2-1 lead.
“With that goal, obviously the puck came out,” says Oleksy, “I actually saw Fehrsie in the middle there and I tried to zip it to him pretty hard and it went between his legs to Jack there. We’ve got a couple guys in front where they belong, digging away and making things tough for the other team and the other goalie. I think our system in general is allowing our defense to get more involved in the offensive end and playing together like that where we’ve got good back pressure from the forwards and the forwards are covering for us. It allows us to contribute and hopefully we can do that the rest of the year.”
Oleksy also has a strong sense of when to shoot the puck, and when to just toss it down low in the offensive zone. You won’t see his shots get blocked very often; if there is no lane, he’ll pass it to a teammate or place it down low.
“It’s something I’ve worked really hard on,” says Oleksy. “There’s nothing like getting a shot blocked and then you’re in a footrace [back toward your own end]. A lot of times I might pass up a shot that I could maybe get through; I’d rather make a play and keep it down low to our forwards, especially with the forwards we have on this team and how strong their play is down low. I’d rather put it back in the corner and let them battle it out and keep some offensive pressure on rather than throwing a hope shot through there and having it go off some shin pads or a stick.
“You might say I don’t shoot as much as I should, but I’m pretty cautious when it comes to that. And with the forwards we have it’s pretty easy to keep the play going when you just throw it down low and they’re so strong on the puck.”
Olesky had been paired with hard-nosed veteran John Erskine for a handful of games, but he and Hillen were put on a pairing for the Montreal game. The move has been beneficial; Oleksy has three assists in three games and Hillen has two goals and three points in the same span.
“Playing with Ersky and playing with Jack, they’re both great players,” notes Oleksy. “But they’re both very different players. Ersky, I think we played a lot more physical but not to take away from the plays he makes; he’s a great hockey player, too. Sometimes when you do fight and bring a physical presence your skill gets overlooked. But he makes good plays and good passes and things like that.
“I think it was more of a simple game with Ersky, it was more of a shutdown defensive role. Moving with Jack, he skates very well and is a very smart hockey player. Me being more of a defensive defenseman allows him to open up a little bit more. Lately he’s been putting up points which is great for him. Hopefully he feels more comfortable making plays and things like that, knowing I’ll always be back for him.”
Oleksy has also shown a knack for drawing penalties of late. He drew a slashing call on Carolina’s Jordan Staal in Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes, and he drew a double-minor for hi-sticking on Tampa Bay’s Benoit Pouliot in Saturday’s game against the Lightning.
“In my role as a player in this league is to try to do that,” says Oleksy, “to try to get into the heads of the other team’s top players. That’s what I tried to do there [against Staal]. Being down a goal and we had some chances and things like that, but we needed to pop one. Obviously our power play is pretty dynamic, so I tried to get a power play.
"[Caps center Mathieu Perreault] did a great job on that play, too, He got him frustrated in the circle. And then when he got kicked out [of the face-off circle], I was giving it to him a little bit and I forced him to take a penalty. Obviously it’s always a great feeling when somebody takes a penalty on you and the power play scores. That’s what it’s all about. It makes it easy to do that kind of thing when you know your power play is going to come out there and give you a good opportunity to get a goal.”
One look at Oleksy’s face shows the battle scars of the fists, pucks and sticks that have been in contact with it. He looks like a hockey player, an old school hockey player. He might as well have a blue collar protruding from his Capitals sweater and have a lunch box parked next to him on the Washington bench. His compete level knows no bounds, and that has to do with his background as a guy who has had to fight – literally and figuratively – to stay at every level at which he has played, and his blue-collar heritage.
“It definitely has a lot to do with the path I’ve taken,” says Olesky of his non-stop engine. “There are a lot of things you go through and feelings you go through when you get released from teams and you get healthy scratched. You’re battling just to stay anywhere, and I’ve had to battle the whole way.
“There are very few things in this game you can control and two of them are how hard you work and your attitude. That’s always been a motto I’ve tried to carry with me: the only two things you can control is how hard you work and your attitude.
“A large part of it is my father, too. He’s an electrician and you see what those labor people go through every day, day in and day out, climbing ladders and crawling all over the place and busting their humps. I try to carry that over to what I do in the hockey world. I worked a couple of summers with him and got to experience that. It’s unbelievable what they do day in and day out, so the least I can do is show up to practice and games and give everything I have on the ice.”
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