In some quarters, there was surprise when the Kelowna Rockets acquired Ryan Olsen from the Saskatoon Blades prior to the 2012-13 season.
The Rockets gave up veteran forward Shane McColgan in the swap with the Blades, a diminutive winger who at the time was property of the New York Rangers, but has since gone unsigned. McColgan, from California, had provided consistent offense in Kelowna and had just led an underachieving unit in scoring during the previous season.
And so the question loomed among junior hockey fans in the Okanagan Valley – just who is Ryan Olsen?
“We made that trade because we wanted to get bigger down the middle of the ice,” said Rockets head coach Ryan Huska. “I think Ryan has done a lot of good things for us since he’s been here. He is a key guy in a lot of different ways.”
Indeed, after his first full season in Kelowna, a campaign that saw the Rockets win 52 games during the regular season, Olsen certainly established his presence among the productive forward group. In 69 games last season, Olsen scored 32 goals and added 24 assists for 56 points and a +17 rating.
“I came here (to Kelowna) feeling pretty good,” Olsen said. “I was pretty confident after getting drafted. Then I got to meet new players on a new team. I got to work with a new coaching staff and they helped me a lot during that season.
“We had a good team, kind of a younger group last year. We put a lot of wins up. It was really good for my development to come here and play more minutes.”
Huska likes what he has seen from Olsen during his time in Kelowna.
“We’re trying to work with Ryan,” Huska said, “to make him a better two-way guy where he’s a solid guy in our own zone, but also a guy who can play kind of a power forward role at the other end and getting pucks hard to the net.
“Consistency is the one area we want to continue to stress with him while he’s here, to be more consistent in how he shows up on a nightly basis. He has come a long way since he has been here.”
Olsen, from Tsawwassen, British Columbia, was selected by the Winnipeg Jets in the sixth round, 160th overall, at the 2012 NHL Draft. He has yet to sign with Winnipeg, but feels good about his effort at training camp this past summer.
“At the development camp and main camp, those were really good experiences for me,” said. “I learned a lot about myself as a player and about what it takes to make it to the next level. I saw some top end NHL players at the main camp and to watch them on and off the ice, just the way they prepare, made it a real good experience for me.”
This season, the Rockets are among the WHL’s top teams out of the gate, currently ranked in the top 10 among CHL teams. On a team likely to contend for a league title this season, Olsen recognizes the importance of establishing himself as a key contributor to the team’s success. He feels his experience this past summer, preparing for and working out with the Jets, will hold him in good stead as he looks to earn a pro contract.
“I knew what to expect as far as fitness testing and what kind of practices there are,” Olsen said when asked about his preparation. “I was able to prepare for that mentally and physically. I thought I did pretty good on the physical testing, because I’d prepared during the summer for it.
“I mean, leaving Winnipeg, their main camp, they told me they want me to become an elite junior player. They want me to play both ends of the ice as hard as I can, and be a force defensively.”
Olsen, who checks in at 6’2 and 194 pounds, faces a challenge that many junior hockey players eventually have to come to terms with. At different levels of minor and junior hockey, he has been a “go-to-guy”. This season, his performance in that high profile role will go a long way toward securing an opportunity in Winnipeg.
Olsen does not necessarily possess an explosive first stride, yet he is able cover the ice well with his size and long reach. This serves him well as he effectively creates havoc for opponents by disrupting passing and shooting lanes. He does not shy away from physical play. He has lined up with Myles Bell (NJD) and Nick Merkley (2015) to form one of the Rockets' top two forward units, and is proving to be a versatile player for the coaching staff.
Signing with the Jets is a priority and the Rockets are prepared to work diligently with Olsen to see that he continues to develop.
“That’s a good question,” Huska said when asked how he has seen drafted juniors tend to respond when playing for a contract. “I think sometimes it’s a bit of urgency, but it’s also a bit of pressure. Sometimes they put so much pressure on themselves they do things improperly, I guess I could say.
“They want to get it done, they want to get noticed, and a lot of times with young guys they feel the only way to get results or contracts is by scoring two or three goals a night, instead of playing to their strengths. I don’t think Ryan is any different.
“He wants to put some points on the board, but at the end of the day he’s probably a guy that Winnipeg is going to look for to be a third-line or fourth-line guy who can kill penalties. That’s the reality of the business we’re in. At this level, you can be an offensive guy, but when you move on there are projections there, he might not be that guy at the next level.”
How willing Olsen is to accept that kind of reality, and how capable he is of transitioning from an elite top-three or top-six junior to a third- or fourth-liner, remains to be seen. Not every player can make it work.
“You’re right, some guys don’t,” Huska said. “But that’s kind of where we’re working with Ryan where we want him to take pride in being a good two-way guy. He expects to generate offense for us, but we also want to prepare him for that next step so that he’s comfortable playing against other team’s top lines and winning face offs and killing penalties.”