By Chris Block
If Rostislav Olesz is upset over residing in Rockford these days, he’s surely not showing his hand.
When asked last week if he was disappointed when he learned the Blackhawks were reassigning him to their American Hockey League affiliate, Olesz described his feelings a different way.
“I wouldn’t say disappointed,” he replied.
“The disappointment was sitting in the stands and watching the game up [with the Blackhawks]. To play six, seven minutes a game is disappointing for a player.”
Olesz does not seem as phased by the demotion as he probably should be. The fact his one-way contract pays him the same no matter where he plays probably has that influence.
During his first three weeks with Rockford, Olesz turned down all media and interview requests, even from the IceHogs. He’s not a very talkative guy. Instead he says he wants to let his play do the talking.
The 26-year old, Czech-born left winger came over to the Blackhawks in the draft day deal that sent defenseman Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers. Olesz said he learned of the trade on his first day back at home in the Czech Republic.
It was a man-for-man transaction. One ‘bad’ contract for another. In the deal, the Hawks gave themselves cap flexibility but also are now stuck with a player who they don’t have a place for, or know what to do with and they pay roughly half of what Campbell earned.
All along there was one caveat attached to the trade – the Panthers knew they were getting a top-end puck-moving defenseman who could eat a ton of minutes on their inexperienced blue line, while the Blackhawks had no idea what to expect from Olesz.
Olesz had surgery to repair his right knee in March. That knee was mangled on his first shift in a Feb 25, 2011 game at Atlanta when he collided with defenseman Mark Stuart. What followed was six and a half months of rehabilitation to be ready in time for the start of training camp.
To Olesz though, he said it felt like he missed another two months sitting on the sidelines while with the Blackhawks.
“Since the (knee) injury, I missed like 8-10 months of hockey,” Olesz told us on December 9th, obviously including October and the first two weeks of November that saw him dress in just six games and average 8-9 minutes per night.
“So, I need to get back, start playing. Get my timing back and my feelings back on the ice… instead of just the one week of training camp.”
The winger played in the final four games he was in Chicago for, before being placed on waivers on November 16th.
Olesz was enigmatic when asked if his knee was fully recovered in time for Blackhawks’ training camp or if his slow start may have been related to the knee.
“Like 100 percent,” Olesz began when asked if his knee was just that in September. “What is 100 percent, you know?
“With that type of injury, I did my best during the summer to get back and be ready to play hockey no matter what. So, I was happy that I made it and I got cleared and can play the game. So, [training camp] was a good point for me.”
In his last 26 games with the Panthers (Jan 2 – Feb 25), Olesz posted 4 goals and 4 assists while getting anywhere from 11 to 17 minutes per night. Numbers certainly not up to par with how he was being compensated by those lowly Panthers. In six regular season games this season with the Hawks, Olesz was unable to distinguish himself in any way being held off the scoresheet entirely averaging around 9 minutes per appearance.
After playing in a November 13th home game against the Oilers, Stan Bowman, Joel Quenneville and company deemed the Olesz trial and experiment over. His $3.125M cap hit and $3.4M salary was shipped off to Rockford officially on November 17 after 29 other teams passed on him and he cleared waivers. The $3.125M figure came off the Hawks’ cap, but owner Rocky Wirtz remains on the hook for the $3.4 million.
The next day Olesz made his debut for the IceHogs in Charlotte, posting a goal and assist in an IceHogs 3-2 shootout victory. Olesz matched those exact totals in his next two games and put up two helpers in a 7-3 defeat of Peoria on November 25. Rockford went 3-1-0-0 in those games after going 2-7-1-0 before Olesz’s arrival.
In the ‘Hogs next five games, Olesz managed just one assist and Rockford lost all four games (0-4-0-0) while getting outscored 14-5. And three of those games were on home ice.
Since, Olesz has 3 goals and 2 assists in his last six games. Rockford won three of those contests and picked up a point in two others, both shootout losses. Since he’s arrived it has been a case of ‘how Olesz goes, the IceHogs go.’
From a team standpoint, Olesz knows he’s in Rockford to lead the way on the ice.
“To be kind of like the leader of the team,” he said when asked what he felt his role is on the IceHogs. “To show [his teammates] the way, how to play the game.”
“I think I’m one of the most experienced guys on the team. [My role] is to bring some goals and be strong on the puck. And also help the team start winning games more than once a week.”
And he’ll need to get to work on that last task. Heading into tonight’s game against the visiting Toronto Marlies, Rockford is the second-worst team (.446) in the AHL. The team is on a pace to finish 30-38-3-5 (68pts) or right about where they stood this time last season.
When he arrived, Olesz was inserted into Ben Smith’s spot (who Chicago recalled when they sent Olesz to Rockford) on Brandon Pirri’s line. At the time that was Rockford’s second line but Olesz’s presence quickly made it the team’s most dangerous offensive threat. He spent eight games with Pirri. The first four the duo was on fire; the next four were duds. So, to distribute the offense more evenly, as he put it, head coach Ted Dent dropped Olesz to the third line with Peter Leblanc and Jimmy Hayes. Olesz has been there since but gets power play time with Pirri. Olesz had a goal in each of the first three games he was on Leblanc’s line. So, it worked. Dent may have had another reason for the change though.
Olesz was drafted by the Panthers 7th overall in the 2004 Entry Draft. (Ovechkin, Malkin, Barker, Ladd, Wheeler and Montoya going before him, in that order.)
Early on in his career, Olesz was seen as a speedy, defensively responsible player. He possessed first-rounder type offensive skill, yet scouts always questioned whether or not he’d ever be a top-six type player.
Olesz was also a player who had a nasty edge to his game and wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around. Those attributes are gone. Groin and knee issues have slowed him down somewhat, but his skill is enough to dominate at the AHL level when he’s interested. But the IceHogs’ main issue to this point hasn’t been offense (though the power play has let them down for long stretches), it’s been the defense.
The question is, can Olesz help them in that respect?
The IceHogs currently own the worst goals-against per game average in the AHL, at 3.6 goals per game. Seeing as Rockford has managed four or more goals in just eleven (7-1-1-2) of twenty-eight games, they won’t reverse their season record (11-14-1-2) until they learn to keep the puck out of their own net.
Olesz says sooner or later, the team will figure things out.
“The guys are working hard and playing good hockey. We have to play the same hockey every night, be more structured, knowing what everyone needs to do in certain situations like after a faceoff, neutral zone, offensive zone, defensive zone coverage. And sooner than later we will get it and we will play great hockey every game and win games.”
While Olesz has been engaged and clocking in a solid effort for the most part in his first month with the IceHogs, time will tell if that will remain the case.
The real test for Olesz, emotionally and moral wise, will be watching his younger, less experienced and accomplished IceHogs’ teammates get the call back to Chicago ahead of the 7-year veteran.
Olesz has already seen Jeremy Morin get recalled ahead of him. Based simply on effectiveness and production, Morin didn’t deserve that recall over Olesz. But, Olesz’s status is tied up in a precarious business of waiver status he finds himself in.
As the season rolls along and injuries mount, you never know, but odds are Olesz will be passed over for other less problematic recalls like Ben Smith, Morin, Brandon Pirri and even Brett McLean and Brandon Segal.
In order to get Olesz back onto the Blackhawks’ roster, he would first have to pass through re-entry waivers. Meaning the 29 other teams would have a chance to pluck Olesz from the Hawks for one-half the price of his contract ($3.4M) and cap hit ($3.125M).
Compounding the issue for both the Blackhawks, and any team considering such move, is the two additional years Olesz has remaining on his current 6-year deal. That would figure to lessen the possibility of a team taking a flier on him. He’s set to be paid $4.0M next season and $4.25M in 2013-14. Any team who picks him off re-entry, though, would only half to pay half of the money going forward. The Blackhawks would pay the other half.
However, making matters murkier for the Hawks, if another team should claim Olesz, the Hawks would have half of Olesz’s cap hit (1.563M) on their cap also moving forward, this year and the remaining two, as long as he’s on an NHL roster. We don’t know what the next year’s CBA will entail, how or if issues like this will change, but as a team that will always spend near or to the upper limit, Stan Bowman won’t want to risk having that extra million and a half reserved on his cap for a player competing for another organization.
Olesz’s problem – If he performs at a high level or dominates the AHL (as he should), he’s more likely to be plucked off re-entry waivers at $2M a season for a desperate or struggling franchise willing to take a chance on a former high draft pick.
But if he falls into bad habits or sulks, no team will want him for sure, including the Hawks.
Unless Stan Bowman gets a guarantee from 29 other teams that they won’t touch Olesz on re-entry, there’s little chance Bowman will take the risk on giving Olesz that call. He’ll either play too well to risk putting him through, or not good enough to bother promoting back to the big club.
So, Olesz is in Rockford to stay for now.
It’s a good thing for the IceHogs…. as long as Olezx can find motivation knowing he is a square peg in a round hole and the money is coming in no matter what.