Oleksuk Typifies Pack’s DepthFeb 5, 2016
By Bob Crawford
In fact, if there has been one consistent offensive theme for the 2015-16 Wolf Pack, it has been steady production by club’s “bottom six” forwards. Whether it has been Chad Nehring starting the season on the fourth line and jumping into the team leadership in scoring, Nick Tarnasky hitting double digits in goals, or a guy like fourth-year veteran Travis Oleksuk excelling as a key faceoff man and dependable penalty-killer, the Wolf Pack forward lineup has been one that has featured important contributions from every member.
According to Oleksuk, that is an element that has been a critical part of the Wolf Pack’s recent surge.
“That’s definitely key for our lineup, (lines) one through four has been producing and that’s huge,” the former Worcester Shark said recently. “I mean, we have Tarnasky on the fourth line who’s putting up ten, 11 goals. That’s a heck of a year for a half year, never mind for a whole year, what he’s going to end up with. So it’s important for us, we don’t have the guys who are throwing up huge points like some of the other teams. So as long as everyone’s contributing and doing their part, that’s where we find success.”
The Wolf Pack’s third and fourth lines have been an ever-changing crew, as is typical for an AHL team, with constant roster changes being a fact of life, and Oleksuk has played alongside a variety of different linemates. Those range from experienced veterans like Tarnasky and Luke Adam to young players just finding their way, like Chris McCarthy, speedsters like Tyler Brown and Brian Gibbons to diggers and grinders like Shawn O’Donnell. No matter what the line chart has looked like, though, the pieces have seemed to fit together well.
“It’s interesting, you hope that every time you change linemates you get a few days of practice to actually work with them, try and get some chemistry, but sometimes that’s not the case,” Oleksuk said. “That’s our sport, you’ve got to adapt to what’s going on around you. So if they put you with new linemates you’ve got to jell as quickly as possible, and I think that’s what we’ve done so far.”
The lineup tinkering has included Oleksuk playing both center and wing, and he hopes that adaptability is something that has been of help to the coaching staff.
“I definitely feel most comfortable at center, but any time I’m on the wing it’s not like I’m not feeling confident at all, I feel strong there too,” said Oleksuk, who celebrated his 27th birthday over the AHL’s recent All-Star break. “So hopefully that’s something we can use, just being versatile, playing wherever they need me.”
Oleksuk came into this season with over 200 games of AHL experience with the Sharks, with whose organization he signed as a free agent in March of 2012, after a four-year college career as a University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog. This year marks his first experience of changing teams as a pro, but the Thunder Bay, Ontario native has played much the same role with the Wolf Pack as he did with Worcester.
“It’s been fairly similar,” Oleksuk said. “I’m a guy who’s dependable on faceoffs late in the game and in important situations, play the PK (penalty kill) quite a lot, and those are the two areas that I really focus on. And I guess I’m kind of looked at for that being part of my role. I like doing it, I enjoy doing it and I’m happy with it.”
The transition to the Wolf Pack group has been a smooth one off the ice as well.
“It was easy,” Oleksuk confirmed. “It seems like hockey guys are the easiest guys to get along with. So once you come into a new room, you know someone who knows someone, and all of a sudden you’re good friends with all of them. I’ve enjoyed my experience here, obviously this is a top-notch organization, just like San Jose was, and I’m just happy and enjoying every minute of it.”
On the offensive side, Oleksuk is a guy who had a 19-goal, 40-point season with Worcester two seasons ago and was the fourth-leading scorer among NCAA Division I players his Senior year at Minnesota-Duluth, with 21-32-53 in 41 games. He went into the All-Star break on a personal season-best three-game point-scoring streak, and wants to push himself to continue to expand his offensive-zone output.
“I definitely do, because I know I have some offensive skill, and any time you can get on the board and help the team win with a few points, it’s big,” Oleksuk said. “So it’s been nice to contribute a little more here, and obviously we’ve been doing pretty well. We’re hoping we can just keep that streak going, and hopefully I can chip in a few points along the way.”
Regardless of what his points numbers have looked like, Oleksuk has been depended on by Wolf Pack head coach Ken Gernander for plenty of key minutes in important late-game situations, which Oleksuk has greatly appreciated
“It definitely gives you confidence,” he said. “Honestly, any time you’re out there in those key situations you know that the coach has the confidence in you, which gives you more confidence in yourself. So it’s a tremendous vote of confidence from him, and I like the role and I’m happy with it.”
One of those key responsibilities that Oleksuk has grabbed hold of is taking many defensive-zone faceoffs when the Wolf Pack are protecting a lead. When asked what his mindset is in that situation, Oleksuk responded, “The number-one thing you don’t want to do is, you just don’t want to lose it clean. You want to at least create a battle in there, where you tell one of your guys to come help you out or not. You’re trying to win it, but the number-one thing is don’t lose it clean and don’t let them get a faceoff play off right away.”
Oleksuk won two WCHA titles in his four years with Minnesota-Duluth, and captured an NCAA championship in 2010-11, his Junior season. Oleksuk did not get his first taste of pro postseason action until last year, though, as the Sharks were shut out of playoff action his first two seasons. Last year’s four-game Worcester run left Oleksuk hungry for more.
“I enjoyed it, I love the playoff atmosphere of hockey,” he said. “Obviously the tempo is picked up a bunch, the pace is quicker, everyone’s going a lot harder, it’s a great style of hockey. It’s physical, not as many penalties called, from what I experienced at least. So it’s fun, I enjoyed it a lot, and hopefully we can make a little longer playoff run this year.”
The Wolf Pack’s chances of securing a postseason berth improved significantly with the team’s recent eight-game winning streak, the second-longest in franchise history. When pressed, Oleksuk finds it hard to identify a single key to that turnaround.
“I’m not sure exactly, but I know everyone’s definitely buying in now to our system,” is how he analyzed it. “Everyone is on the same page, and everyone’s goals, it seems, are going towards the same way. Everyone wants to make those playoffs and make a long run. And I think with the team we have in this locker room right now, we have just as good a chance as anyone to make that run. So I’m really happy with where we’re at, and hopefully we can keep trending up.”