While Steve Oleksy led the Hershey Bears with 151 penalty minutes and 11 fights in 55 games in the American Hockey League this season, Coach Adam Oates was adamant that the Capitals didn’t sign and recall the defenseman simply to be a fighter.
“I know that’s part of his game, but I already talked to him. That’s not why he here. That’s not. We need him to play,” Oates said. “We need him to play and be matched up with Tom [Poti] and we need to be able to break out of the zone. That’s why. You’re a righty and it makes an easy pass to Tom and you for him. And we need to handle their forecheck. That’s what it’s about.”
Oleksy said he’s received that message loud and clear.
“They just want me to play my game. We’ve all been playing hockey for a long time, and no matter what level, you have to play within your means and do what you’re good at,” Oleksy said. “I’m gonna try to play a physical game and bring that side to things and make a good first pass and be strong defensively.”
Oates is a strong believer in having a balanced blue line — specifically that setting up each pairing with a right-handed and left-handed defenseman makes for easier outlet passes and allows any team to move the puck up out of the defensive zone with better speed and precision.
Without Mike Green, who is sidelined by a groin injury, the Capitals’ third pairing has featured two left-handed players in Poti and Jeff Schultz and Oates wanted to add another righty to the mix. Enter Oleksy, who at 27 will make his NHL debut at Verizon Center against the Bruins. Over the past five years, Oleksy has played on seven different teams in four different minor hockey leagues.
In order to make room for Oleksy the Capitals placed Green on injured reserve. The earliest he would be eligible to return is Thursday, but at this stage that seems highly unlikely.
“As I’ve said all along, I really believe in balance. And having three righties and three lefties is very important to me,” Oates said. “Boston’s a team that comes down the walls. They don’t give you many second chances so you need that first play to be a good one. Having him in Hershey he knows the system and he helps us with the balance.”
Oates said that during the NHL lockout in his time serving as co-coach of the Hershey Bears Oleksy was “probably our most improved player.” He likes Oleksy’s toughness and overall grit. “He can handle himself,” Oates said, but it’s largely the search for another right-handed defenseman that earned Oleksy a chance to show what he can do at the NHL level.
“I hope so,” Oates said when asked if Oleksy’s presence in Washington will be long-term. “Obviously, it depends with Greenie. Unfortunately it’s that injury we’ve talked about a lot so it’s just a great opportunity for him to show [General Manager] George [McPhee] what he’s got because Greenie’s out. And for us we need the right shot.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby, who played 25 games in Hershey during the lockout, described Oleksy as a gritty defenseman but more than a fighter. He said that Oleksy took on a role similar to Capitals forward Matt Hendricks, who scraps when needed to defend a teammate or give his team an energy boost.
“He was outstanding in Hershey. He’s a little more of a defensive D man, obviously he plays very physical especially in front of the net, he’s a hard guy to play against,” Holtby said. “What goalies really want in a D-man that’s basically what Oleksy is.”
Oleksy should be able to clear out opponents from in front of the net and also keep the Capitals’ foes honest, a quality they can’t have enough of Holtby says.
“It’s nice to have that against any team; those guys are valuable, who can play the game of hockey and have that physical edge,” Holtby said. “To know that guys – not going to name names, obviously on Boston – that won’t run around and have cheap shots. That’s what you need, you need those guys on the ice all the time to make sure you keep the other team in an honest game and that helps us out that we can stick to our game plan.”