Steve Oleksy is with the Washington Capitals more because he’s a right-handed shot than because he’s a right-handed fighter, coach Adam Oates said Tuesday. And, Oates said, the gritty defenseman, signed and recalled from the Hershey Bears after 151 penalty minutes and 11 fights in 55 games, isn’t just here to face the rough-and-tumble Boston Bruins and drop the gloves.
“I know that’s part of his game,” Oates said. “But I already talked to him. That’s not why he here. That’s not. We need him to play.”
Oates repeated his belief in “balance,” having three left-handed defensemen each paired with a righty. Mike Green aggravating a groin injury left the Caps short. After calling up the 27-year-old Oleksy, they can put him with Tom Poti while defenseman Mike Green is out with a groin injury.
“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.”
Oleksy was one of three right-handed defensemen in Hershey, along with Brett Flemming and Garrett Stafford. Both are on NHL deals. But goaltender Braden Holtby, who played 25 games for the Bears during the NHL lockout, raved about Oleksy.
“He was outstanding in Hershey,” Holtby said. “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. What goalies really want in a D-man that’s basically what Oleksy is. You know he’s going to be safe in your D-zone, he’s going to do the smart plays.”
Oleksy was watching “Jack the Giant Slayer” with teammate and roommate Mike Carman only to see missed calls and text messages from agent Peter Cooney and Hershey general manager Doug Yingst as he was leaving.
He didn’t see this coming.
“It was pretty unexpected,” Oleksy said. “Obviously, you know, as a hockey player, you show up for work every day and you give a hundred percent and you work as hard as you can and you let the puzzle pieces fall where they may.”
Oleksy’s eyes show the remnants of fights past. His most recent one came March 1 against Tom Kostopolous. But after talking to Oates and general manager George McPhee, Oleksy did not let on that fighting was his primary role with the Caps.
“They just want me to play my game,” Oleksy said. “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. Obviously 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.”
It was Oleksy’s game at Verizon Center Dec. 6 that caught the Caps’ attention, according to just about everyone around the defenseman and the team. Including that and 54 other games for the Bears, he had two goals and 12 assists before getting the call-up.
He’ll make his NHL debut Tuesday night in Washington, with his mother, Sue, father, Andy, brother, Daniel and brother’s girlfriend, Nikki, in attendance. They drove through the night from Michigan to make it here for the big night.
That Oleksy gets to face the Bruins is gravy.
“To get thrown into the mix here against a team like Boston is pretty exciting,” he said. “No other team [better] to open up than Boston. It’s a good feeling.”
It’s uncertain how long Oleksy will be around, though a lot of that could be determined by Green’s health. For the time being, Oates wants to see if Oleksy can stick around long-term.
“I hope so. Obviously it depends with Greenie,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s that injury we’ve talked about a lot so it’s just a great opportunity for him to show George what he’s got because Greenie’s out. And for us we need the right shot.”
Holtby called Oleksy a bit of a “late bloomer.” Since coming out of Lake Superior State, Oleksy has spent five years with seven different minor league teams in three different leagues.
“But I told him when I left that I would not be at all surprised and that I expect to see him in Washington by the end of the year,” Holtby said, “because he’s that good of a player, that smart of a player.”