Unlike some of Ottawa's free agents, such as Matt Carkner or Zenon Konopka, Jim O'Brien's situation is relatively straight-forward. The young centre will be re-signed, but on what terms? As a former 1st round pick, O'Brien is likely to get more chances than a typical bottom-six forward gets. After an underwhelming first season in Bingo, O'Brien had a productive season for the AHL-affiliate in 2010-11 and his improved play over the course of the past two years resulted in a mid-season call-up to Ottawa in 2011-12.
While O'Brien will most likely slide between the 3rd and 4th lines, he has shown offensive upside in the AHL (scoring 24 goals and 56 points in 2010-11), and he might be able to provide modest offensive contributions in the future.
#42 / Center / Ottawa Senators
Jan 29, 1989
|2011 - Jim O`Brien||28||3||3||6||6||4||0||0||1||37|
Contract status: O'Brien is a restricted free agent, coming off the last year of his entry level contract, and made $700,000 in 2011-12.
Season in review: Called up mid-season, O'Brien initially played a 4th line role, but as Zack Smith's play faltered in the second-half of the season, O'Brien challenged his teammate for a place in the top-9. O'Brien managed to win the trust of head coach Paul MacLean, so much so that Chief O'Brien was on the ice in overtime of Game 4 against the New York Rangers, notching an assist on Kyle Turris' winner.
Comparable players: There are a few young centres that compare with O'Brien, who play a bottom-six role.
#15 / Center / Ottawa Senators
Apr 05, 1988
|2011 - Zack Smith||81||14||12||26||4||98||1||2||3||134|
Teammate Zack Smith is perhaps the best comparison for O'Brien. While Smith is a year older, both play a checking game, though O'Brien is much less physical. Zack played part of the 2010-2011 season with the Senators, scoring 4 goals, 5 assists, and 9 points in 55 games, a similar pace to O'Brien in 2011-12. Smith's ELC finished at the end of 2010-11 and he signed a 2-year, $1.4 million, one-way deal.
#11 / Center / Calgary Flames
Mar 17, 1989
|2011 - Mikael Backlund||41||4||7||11||-13||16||2||0||2||85|
Like O'Brien, Backlund is a former late 1st round pick who has only started to find his role in the NHL over the past 2 seasons. The same size and age as O'Brien, Backlund took a step back in 2011-12, but his 2010-11 campaign (73-10-15-25) illustrated more offensive upside. Backlund's ELC also finished at the end of the season, and he's a RFA looking to improve on the $787,500 he made this year. His greater offensive totals over the last 2 years give him an advantage over O'Brien, and Backlund will probably receive a one-way deal and a modest raise.
#48 / Center / Detroit Red Wings
Jun 01, 1988
|2011 - Cory Emmerton||71||6||4||10||1||14||0||0||0||63|
Despite playing in 71 games for the Red Wings this season, Emmerton's offensive upside was limited and he was used primarily in a checking role in his first full season in the NHL. Emmerton, the 41st overall pick in the 2006 Draft, re-signed with the Wings in the summer of 2011 after finishing his ELC. He signed a 3-year, two-way deal worth $1.6 million.
Conclusions: I suspect O'Brien will get a deal similar to Smith's: a short, one-way deal paying him close to the league minimum or slightly above it. Bryan Murray used one-way contracts to motivate his RFAs last summer and it would make sense for Murray to handle O'Brien the same way.