When he was recalled from AHL Hershey earlier this month, Caps defenseman Steve Oleksy’s pro résumé included 13 goals and 60 assists to go along with 51 fighting majors in 257 minor league games. Smart money had him dropping the gloves before lighting the lamp in the NHL, but as is often the case, the smart money was wrong.
The 27-year-old defenseman recorded the first assist of his NHL career in the second period of his first game with Washington, and he added two more the next game. Oleksy notched his first NHL goal in his fourth NHL game.
His first NHL fight didn’t come until his fifth game when he squared off against Carolina’s Drayson Bowman. The fight came early in the third period, with Washington down 3-0 in the game. Oleksy did well in that bout, easily besting Bowman, who also dropped the gloves for the first time in the NHL in that scrap.
“It felt good,” said Oleksy. “And obviously, talking with the coaches, I’m not going out and trying to do that every day. But being down 3-0 early in the third, [I was] trying to get something going, trying to get the guys going a little bit.
“I asked [Bowman] off the face-off and he said, ‘Yeah.’ It felt good to get it out of the way and to add that element to my game at this level.
“Anyone who has played the game will tell you it takes a lot to do it, regardless of the outcome. [Bowman] stood up for his team, and kudos to him for doing it. It was a good outcome and hopefully the guys got going a little bit after that.”
With John Erskine and Tom Poti both out of the lineup for that March 12 game against Carolina, Oleksy was the oldest Washington defenseman on the ice, beating Jeff Schultz by three weeks.
“[Video coach Brett Leonhardt] reminded me of that when we went in for video,” said Oleksy, the day after the game. “I had no idea of that previously, but I got a pretty big kick out of that this morning.”
Oleksy was recalled from Hershey on March 4, and he signed a three-year, two-way deal with the Capitals at the time. Until then, the Michigan native had been operating on an AHL deal. At the time of his recall, Oleksy figured to be a stopgap solution on the third defensive pairing until Washington’s blueline could get healthy.
And if Oleksy were left-handed, he likely wouldn’t have been recalled at all.
Caps coach Adam Oates favors having three lefties and three righties on his pairings, and the addition of Oleksy enabled the Caps to maintain that blueline balance. In his first game with Washington, Oleksy logged 10:05 in ice time in his debut, about what you’d expect from a third-pair journeyman making his NHL debut. But in six of the nine games since – and each of the last four – Oleksy has skated upwards of 20 minutes. His average ice time per game is at 19:28, fourth among the team’s defensemen.
With the Caps needing those kind of minutes from Oleksy, it’s not surprising that he had just one fight in his first nine NHL games. But Oleksy isn’t an enforcer. He’s not even a fighter, in the purest hockey sense of the term. He’s a guy who will fight.
Playing collegiate hockey at Lake Superior State, Oleksy never started fighting on a regular basis until he turned pro. His first pro training camp with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye in the fall of 2009 opened his eyes to the need to stand out from the crowd.
“To be honest, I never really fought,” Oleksy recalls. “And then after college, going to my first pro camp there, you’re counting the numbers and seeing how many guys had signed contracts and seeing the numbers at camp. It was one of those things where, ‘I’ve got to do something to stand out.’
“Actually, my first fight was against a guy [Milan Maslonka] who was 6-foot-7, 245 and he played at the American League level a little bit. I had some experience and I figured, ‘Okay, I’ll go for this one.’ And you’re not supposed to win it. It’s what I call a ‘pressure-free fight,’ there is no pressure on you to win it because you’re not supposed to win it.
“That was my first one in camp, and it just so happened a couple of shifts later, another guy on their team slashed a guy in the back of the legs and I ended up fighting again two shifts later. I was just trying to make a name out of camp. I ended up getting released from there, but I picked it up and added it into my element of things I can try to do here.”
Sure, there’s no pressure to win a fight against a guy who is nearly a foot taller and who outweighs you by more than 50 pounds. But isn’t there a degree of pressure to keep your face intact?
“Yeah, there is,” laughs Oleksy. “I learned a lot from Trevor Gillies [in Bridgeport] last year. I suffered a shattered nose last year. He gets on the bus, and I’m in pain and he looks at me and tells me ‘If you win all of ‘em, you’re not fighting the right guys.’
“Any guy will tell you they’ve lost [fights]. And fighting is an art, too. I kind of look at it like a chess match. Everybody matches up differently. You can say, ‘This guy is not tough,’ but he can go out there and do well against a heavyweight. And then you can say, ‘This guy is real tough,’ but he can go out there and lose to a guy who is not known as a fighter. It’s all how you match up, and there are no easy fights, that’s for sure.”
There are fighters who study opposing rosters and watch video of potential dance partners. Oleksy is not one of them.
“No, no,” he says. “Not at all. To be honest, I am a heat of the moment guy. I prefer not to know tendencies and stuff like that. Just go in and do it, and do it to the best of my abilities. Win or lose, hopefully it serves the purpose that I’m going for.”
Usually that “purpose” is creating a spark, as in the fight against Bowman, or in standing up for his teammates, as in Sunday night’s game in Washington when Oleksky challenged veteran Buffalo center Steve Ott, after noting that Ott had been harassing a few of the Capitals’ skilled players. Unfortunately for Oleksy, Ott baited the rookie, saying he’d fight and then refusing. He lured Oleksy into taking a roughing minor in the third period of a close game. Lesson learned.
Oates said that Oleksy was like a sponge early this season in Hershey when the Washington coaching staff was helping out behind the Bears’ bench. Over his years as a pro, Oleksy has also soaked up a fair amount of intelligence on the nuances of fighting.
“I’ve actually been pretty fortunate throughout my pro career to work with some very, very good fighters,” says Oleksy. “My first couple of years, I worked with a guy named Adam Huxley who is little bit bigger than me but is technically probably one of the best fighters I have ever seen. I was real raw then. Like I said, I hadn’t really fought at all. He taught me a lot, straightening out my punches and my technique. We used to hit the pads a lot and he was great, absolutely unbelievable in helping me take the next step.
“And then last year I was fortunate enough to work with guys like Trevor Gillies, Micheal Haley and Brett Gallant, some pretty tough characters. Those are some of the best. And this year down in Hershey, Matt Clackson, too. He is another similar, smaller guy, but he can hold his own with anybody.
“I watched him fight [Steve] MacIntyre earlier this year, and him and Gallant are – pound for pound – probably two of the toughest guys I’ve ever seen. To learn from those guys has been an awesome experience and I have to thank all those guys for putting me in a position where I am know, where I know what I am doing and can handle myself in those situations.”
The ability to handle himself in those situations has certainly helped Oleksy get this far in his pro career, but he has also shown himself to be a capable defenseman during his first two weeks in the NHL. Washington has had its fair share of injuries and disappointments this season, but Oleksy’s emergence has been a very pleasant surprise for the organization. Depth in the toughness and on the right side of a defensive depth chart are areas virtually all 30 NHL organizations are always seeking to bolster.
Some major media outlets haven’t quite caught up to Oleksy’s presence in the NHL. Two weeks after his arrival in the league, Oleksy still doesn’t have a player page on tsn.ca, and his ESPN.com player page misidentifies his hometown as being Chesterfield, Va. rather than Mich.
Oleksy’s play in his first nine games has made folks in the greater D.C. area take notice. He has literally had to fight to get here, but if he keeps playing the way he has been, the fight to stay in the NHL won’t require as much dropping of the gloves.