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Thirty NHL Teams Pass on Capitals’ Steven Oleksy

Michael Clifford wonders why every team in the NHL passed on an effective defenseman with a low cap hit.

Steven Olesky
Steven Olesky

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Waiver wire transactions occur all the time in the NHL and for a couple of different reasons: players returning from injury need to have a roster spot cleared for them or a player may not be living up to expectations and has a hefty salary attached (Wade Redden, Jeff Finger et. al). It’s not necessary for a big contract to be attached to the player; Cam Janssen was put on waivers on Monday and earns $550,000.

The other player put on waivers Monday with Janssen was Washington Capitals defenseman Steven Oleksy. If the name isn’t familiar, here’s a little background on him.

Oleksy played three years of Division 1 NCAA hockey from 2006-2009 and went undrafted along the way. This forced Oleksy to take the dreaded minor league route, going from the East Coast Hockey League, to the International Hockey League (in Port Huron, Michigan), to the AHL and eventually with the Hershey Bears in 2012. That last stop would prove fruitful for Oleksy as he would sign a two-way contract with the Bears’ NHL team, the Washington Capitals.

There are a couple of things that need to be explained about Oleksy’s game.

First, he can use his fists fairly effectively. At every level he’s played since his NCAA days Oleksy has averaged at least a penalty minute per game and had 151 in 55 games with Hershey last year. A quick YouTube search of “Steve Oleksy fight” will prove exactly this.

Second, at every level he’s played at since his NCAA days, Oleksy has been able to provide something offensively: from 2009-2012 with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL, Oleksy had 38 points in 102 games. Prorated to an 82-game season, that is closer to 31 points than 30. In his 122 games at the AHL level, Oleksy had 33 points (and 288 PIMs, mind you), which is an 82-game rate of 22 points. In his 61 NHL games, Oleksy managed 19 points, which is an 82-game rate closer to 26 points than 25.

If you put any stock into plus/minus (I do not), Oleksy was plus-21 in the AHL and plus-16 in the NHL.

That’s the profile of this soon-to-be 28-year old defenseman who was never drafted, seems to fight a lot, and yet has managed to contribute at a level offensively that only 72 regular NHL defensemen have been able to do since he broke into the league. What that means is that of the 153 NHL defensemen who have played at least 60 games since the start of the lockout-shortened season a year ago, Oleksy has out-produced half of them in point per game rates. This is a defenseman who carries a season-long cap hit of $541,667.

The defenseman who is leading all regular Washington Capitals defensemen in points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play this year is Steven Oleksy (1.38) and it’s not really close (next is Mike Green at 0.86). One guess to who led Washington in this category last year. How he got those points is another matter altogether and it’s not an obvious answer.

The first name that comes to mind when you think of the Capitals is Alex Ovechkin, and for good reason. However, out of Oleksy’s 862 minutes of five on five ice time with the Capitals, Oleksy has only played with Ovechkin in 205 of them, less than 25 percent of the time. In fact, only five of Oleksy’s 19 points came with Ovechkin on the ice. While he was more productive offensively with their superstar overall, he wasn’t a pit offensively and in fact did very well in his other minutes:

With Ovechkin (205:18): Eleven goals for, seven goals against, plus-4 (or plus-1 every 51:19)

Without Ovechkin (656:45): Twenty-three goals for, 20 goals against, plus-13 (or plus-1 every 50:31)

Without arguably the NHL’s top goal scorer on the ice with him, Oleksy was as productive for his team as he was with him. Sure his point production declined slightly with Ovechkin, but his overall effect on the team remained constant. Sure, Oleksy was given easy minutes in both seasons, but typically that’s what happens with third pairing defensemen; guys like Francis Bouillon and Douglas Murray in Montréal, Nick Schultz in Edmonton and Kevin Klein of Nashville are all getting killed in third pairing minutes (the best plus/minus mark of the four of them being Murray’s minus-10) and all of them will grossly out-earn Oleksy. In fact, those four defensemen have combined for 12 points this year, Oleksy has 10.

It’s not like Washington’s a good five on five team either, as the team sits minus-13 on the year at five on five (23rd in goals-for percentage) and they are 22nd in FenwickFor-percentage.

This all seems a bit odd. In such a cap-crunched year where nearly two-thirds of the league has less than $5.1-million in cap space as of January 22, a defenseman who has produced points at an above-average rate, has produced at a more efficient rate at five on five than Mike Green and is actually making less than the league minimum in terms of cap hit when the four third pairing guys named earlier will earn over (on average) $2-million between them, would be waived by a team and then be passed on by every other team in the NHL.

Steven Oleksy is a guy who doesn’t have a draft pedigree behind him, yet has produced at a decent rate at all levels, has been a plus player on a minus team over the last year and earns less than $550K a season. Yet he went unclaimed by all the other 29 teams. His underlying stats say he’s been good, his production say he’s been good and his plus/minus say he’s been good. Oleksy also seems to be a pretty tough defenseman to play against and would be an asset to 80-percent of the teams in the league. There are several instances of players needing the minor league route to become effective hockey players (P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson, to name a couple) and it would seem Oleksy has gotten to that point. It also seems 30 NHL teams don’t share that sentiment.

Salary information courtesy of Capgeek.

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