Top 25 Under 25, no. 25: Jim O'Brien
It was a bit of a strange play. Nick Foligno threw a long wrist shot on goal that was batted down to the side of the net and onto the stick of Jim O'Brien. O'Brien was left with a split-second decision to make: he could either try and work the puck in from a completely covered and awkward angle, or he could... do something else. O'Brien chose the latter, catching Jose Theodore, the Florida Panthers defenders, radio announcer Randy Moller, the dozens of fans in attendance, and all of us at home completely off guard. He powered around the back of the net to the opposite post, and neatly tucked the puck past the thin red line for his first National Hockey League goal. It was not top shelf, where you may come across Mrs. Moller's jar of peanut butter, but it was a significant landmark in O'Brien's professional hockey career, one that many had begun to doubt he would reach.
For fans of the Ottawa Senators, if there is one defining means of judging a General Manager's ability, it is through the draft. Exhibit A, John Muckler, was bad at it. He stocked the prospect pantry poorly, yet still managed to raid it intermittently, mostly in the pursuit of faded stars. When given the chance, he was unlikely to replace what he took away, flipping a second round pick for Oleg 'Freakin'' Saprykin. That trade wasn't all that bad, as common wisdom maintains he likely would have spoiled the pick anyhow. Exhibit B, Bryan Murray, is considered to be quite good at the practice of drafting. Jim O'Brien could be considered as a pick from a period of transition. Weeks removed from the Stanley Cup Finals, in which he had been the coach, Bryan Murray and his draft team selected Jim O'Brien from the US National Team Development Program.
Unlike some other picks understandably bemoaned by Sens fans, Jim O'Brien was not surrounded by star-calibre talent. Good players were taken later, but Jim O'Brien has seen the second most NHL action of any picks between 28 and 39--trailing TJ Brennan of the Buffalo Sabres, a real mainstay with eight games played.
O'Brien had committed to the University of Minnesota the season before the Senators picked him, and entered college hockey while still only 17, making him the youngest player in US College Hockey (thanks a bunch, Wikipedia!). The young recruit left the university as a freshman to play for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the WHL. Such a step is fairly common--once a player steps onto the ice in the CHL, they cannot play college. In his second year, the Thunderbirds' postseason push lasted for no more than 300 minutes of hockey, and the overager made the transition to professional puck play. Year one did not go quite as planned, neither for O'Brien nor the B-Sens as a whole, missing the playoffs and eking out a (barely) plus-.500 record. Woo mediocrity!
O'Briens professional career turned last season. After a harsh wake-up call in his rookie season's exit interview, O'Brien earned a prominent spot on Coach Kurt Kleinendorst's roster and recorded 39 points more than the previous season--tripling the number of goals he scored and all of it in two less games played. Add an overtime winner against the Houston Aeros that brought the eventual Calder Cup winning Binghamton Senators back up from a 1-0 deficit in the finals, and it becomes evident that 2010-2011 was a dramatic turnaround of a year for the third-year pro. This season, playing on a beleaguered Binghamton squad, O'Brien has not put up compulsory figures, but has been contributing. At the moment, nobody is griping about his offensive punch in Binghamton because we're far too busy heaping praise for his impact in the NHL.
"The Future" is a time O'Brien is probably not spending too much of his time thinking about. For the time being, he is playing in the NHL for a surprisingly competitive Senators team. So, enjoy it, keep skating, and don't cut your hair. Moreover, this is not an example of an instance where a player is given playing time for lack of other options. O'Brien's play, intelligent and fairly skilled, has earned him a spot over Zenon Konopka (the big man's press box attendance will only increase the number of times we'll hear about how much he earned per faceoff win). What's more, O'Brien's goal celebration was obviously preempted and very NHL 2001.
Looking forward, though, O'Brien will be in it tight for a roster spot come next season. His skillset isn't exactly rare, although he's valuable because of his size, his hustle, and his faceoff abilities. It's unclear what kind of contributions he can offer an NHL team in real terms, but few would project him as more than a third-line player under the best circumstances. More likely, he'll play much of his NHL career on a fourth line, and even then it remains to be seen just how long that NHL career will be.
O'Brien, though, is earning himself points now--brownie and actual--and has the opportunity, like Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, Colin Greening, and Zack Smith last year, to get a leg up over the competition in training camp next season.
It has been a roundabout path and, for a time, it seemed like O'Brien would never be in this situation. Keep it coming, Jimbo.