Why BU Free Agent Matt O’Connor Signed With Ottawa
O’Connor, a Toronto native, played 76 games with Boston between 2012 and 2015, finishing his NCAA career with a .921 save percentage. In 2014-15 he put up a .927 save percentage in 35 games and backstopped the Terriers to the national championship game before allowing a goal that, to use a cliche, he probably wants back.
That was just a single error, however. O’Connor’s college career was good enough to put him in conversation for a contract with several NHL teams. Reports from TSN’s Bob McKenzie had three other teams vying for the 23-year-old’s services beside the Senators: the Edmonton Oilers, the New York Rangers, and the Vancouver Canucks.
Louis Jean of TVA Sports reported several days ago that the goaltending coach was an important consideration, and O’Connor said in a conference call after signing Saturday that the Senators track record of developing goalies played a role in signing with Ottawa. O’Connor had a chance to work with Senators goaltending coach Rick Wamsley while attending Ottawa’s development camp in 2011, and indicated that factored into his decision.
So too, it appears, was Wamsley’s preference for a more aggressive style.
“I’m a big goalie and I always need to get quicker moving laterally,” O’Connor said. “I think my game really improves working with a good strength coach as well, but Rick Wamsley will work me hard. He’s a good, hard-nosed guy that’s going to develop my game as a goalie in a lot of aspects like playing the puck, positioning and playing a bit more of an aggressive style. I know when I spoke to him after a game that he came down to see me in Vermont, he said he liked my aggressive style and compared it to Ben Bishop (of the Tampa Bay Lightning).”
It’s an interesting and telling quote because you can almost guarantee Wamsley and the Senators were the only team telling O’Connor he wouldn’t need to temper that aggression at least a little as a pro. It’s typically one of the first adjustments goalies have to make coming out of the NCAA, something cited in past InGoal conversations with Cory Schneider of the New Jersey Devils and Cam Talbot of the New York Rangers.
It almost certainly would have been part of conversations with Rangers goalie coach Benoit Allaire and Canucks goalie coach Roland Melanson, who both prefer their goaltenders to play a more contained system within the crease.
— OC (@MatttOConnor) May 9, 2015
O’Connor also said on the conference call that he expects to start with the Binghamton Senators in the American Hockey League next season and wasn’t promised any NHL games as part of his new contract, which buys the Senators some time to figure out an increasingly crowded crease.
Veteran No.1 Craig Anderson is under contract for three more seasons with a salary cap hit of $4.2 million, Robin Lehner has two years left on a deal worth $2.25 per season, and Andrew Hammond is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after a breakout second half. General Manager Bryan Murray has already said the team will try to re-sign Hammond, and trade either Anderson or Lehner to make room for him.
As for where O’Connor might fit into that mix, history suggests the Senators shouldn’t count on him anytime soon.
While even O’Connor and his agent were thankfully not silly enough to suggest a straight transition, some have talked about a two-year timeline to the NHL. The reality may be closer to three seasons.
That’s how long it took Talbot to get from college to the Rangers. Schneider spent the majority of his first three seasons in the AHL before making the jump to the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks full time. Jimmy Howard spent most of four seasons in the AHL before entrenching himself with the Detroit Red Wings. Bishop, who like O’Connor is a big goaltender and spent time in Ottawa, needed five seasons before finally breaking through.
There are exceptions, of course, including Hammond, who is in his second pro season, and Brian Elliott, who also split time between the Senators and AHL in his second year, a quick leap made even more remarkable by the fact he was totally rebuilding a style that worked in college but was ill-suited for sustained success as a pro.
As for the factors in O’Connor’s game that could affect that timeline to the NHL, InGoal Magazine managing partner Kevin Woodley took a closer look at this highlight video:
“You can see how well he moves, especially on his knees,” Woodley said. “There is a delay on those lateral movements caused by the way he tracks as he gathers that big frame to go back the other way, but he gets some rotation with it, establishing angle on his slides rather than coming across too flat. There’s also some flashy glove saves, and while you might like to see less reaching for a goalie his size, not all of the saves are the result of having to be spectacular to overcome an earlier mistake, common among highlight packages.
“There is always an adjustment from the NCAA to pro hockey and most often it involves playing more conservatively. The play moves faster and goaltenders as big as O’Connor open up bigger holes when they move, a dangerous combination. Ironically, O’Connor cited depth management as one of his biggest improvements during his last season as Boston University, but talked about choosing the Senators because Wamsley likes his aggression, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out. He seems to move well enough for his size to get away with taking more ice, but most would ask why he would give teams a chance to move the puck around or through his big frame.
“As limited as a highlight package is judging a goalie, you can see O’Connor has a nice mix of size and athleticism. How long it takes him to get to the NHL (assuming he does) will likely be determined by how long it takes to find the balance between using that size effectively and efficiently so he doesn’t need to rely on the athleticism as often,” Woodley continued. “Then again, Ottawa seems to like its goalies relying on skill.”
“And that brings us to his chances of developing that balance with the Senators. It’s interesting to hear O’Connor say that’s why he picked Ottawa because there has been regression in Lehner’s game over the past few seasons, Anderson rides the highs and lows of a goalie that relies a lot more on skill than technique and plays an aggressive game, and there was no indication prior to his late-season run that the Senators truly believed in Hammond, who left himself in scramble mode more than you’d like. That said, all have had success there.
“Only time will tell if O’Connor can do the same, but based on conversations with other goalies who went from the NCAA to the NHL, Senators fans should be prepared to wait more than a year or two to find out.”