As if things weren’t crowded enough in Ottawa’s crease, the Senators signed prized college free agent Matt O’Connor to a two-year entry-level deal. O’Connor, who is from Toronto, played the previous three years with the Boston University Terriers and was teammates this year with
Buffalo Sabre’s Franchise Messiah projected number two overall pick in the 2015 draft Jack Eichle. Their team came within one game of winning the NCAA’s Frozen Four and were tied 3-3 with Providence in the final until this happened:
Despite the atrocious goal, O’Connor had a stand out season with BU. While not putting up stellar numbers in the USHL – resulting in him being passed over in the NHL draft – he really developed his game in the NCAA and posted solid numbers over his previous three seasons with the Terriers.
Given O’Connor’s coveted status as a free agent and a Andrew Hammond like record of 25-4-4 this season, its natural that many Sens fans have rather high expectations for O’Connor. What we do know is that he will start next season in Binghamton, most likely fighting for the starting job with Chris Drieger. While Drieger put up decent numbers in his 8 game AHL tryout this year after Ottawa called Hammond up, his numbers over 40 games with Ottawa’s ECHL affiliate Evansville suggest that Drieger is in need of more development. So the most likely scenario is Matt O’Connor steps into the number one role in Bingo.
However, it certainly seems like Matt O’Connor projects as more than a minor league starter. For one, many scouts are quite impressed with his abilities. Hockey’s Future particularly cites his athleticism and lateral movement, which are impressive for a man his size. Additionally, Jonathan Willis of Oilers’ Nation suggests that had O’Connor signed in Edmonton, could have stepped into their roster immediately and challenged Scrivens for the starting job. Furthermore, given his build and playing style, the obvious comparison is with Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, who also played NCAA and has clearly established himself as one of the better starting goalies in the NHL. Another interesting comparison for O’Connor is Cam Talbot of the New York Rangers, who signed as a free agent out of college and has played remarkably well for the Rangers in Henrik Lundqvist’s absence.
Comparing O’Connor to Ben Bishop and Cam Talbot
Like O’Connor, Ben Bishop played three years of NCAA hockey before jumping to St.Louis’ AHL affiliate in Peoria. In his final year at the University of Maine, Bishop played 34 games (one less than O’Connor this year) and put up a GAA of 2.43 while posting a SV% of .920. Even in his sophomore year, which was by far his most dominant, Bishop’s GAA of 2.14 and SV% of .923 are or par with O’Connors’ 2.18 GAA and .927 SV% this year. Now, while Bishop didn’t have a generational talent playing in front of him, in the 2006-07 season Bishop’s Maine Black Bears reached the Frozen Four, indicating a certain caliber of team in front of him.
Similarly, Cam Talbot also played three years in the NCAA but unlike O’Connor and Bishop, played for a very weak University of Alabama – Huntsville Chargers team. What is particularly impressive about Talbot is in his final year with the Chargers, and his only one as a clear-cut starter, he posted a 2.61 GAA and an excellent .925 SV% in 33 starts. Despite playing on a team that only managed to win 12 games all year. It was the strength of his final year performance that earned Talbot a contract with the Rangers and now has him positioned as a future starter in the NHL.
So What Does Ottawa Have In O’Connor?
First and foremost, it is pretty clear that Matt O’Connor can stop the puck and make some amazing saves.
While his numbers are certainly very similar to Ben Bishop’s, it isn’t clear that O’Connor will develop into an undisputed number one goalie in the league. Unlike O’Connor, Bishop was drafted in the third round of the draft in 2005 and had played quite well in Jr. A before his draft year, unlike O’Connor. Rather, it has taken him a few years to develop in his position and the pro game is another big jump from college hockey. Furthermore, someone like Talbot, who also was a late bloomer in College, didn’t have the benefit of a strong team in front of him. It also isn’t quite clear yet what Talbot’s ceiling as a goalie is yet. My prediction is that O’Connor settles into a number 1B starting role. He won’t be a dominant goalie in the league, but with a strong defensive corps in front of him, could provide solid enough goaltending for a winning team. Think Brian Elliott on the Blues.
The other important note is that all teams in the league need depth in-goal. As Ottawa demonstrated this year, sometimes you need your third string goalie to steal you a game or 20. And even if you only have one net, goalies are assets the team can move to strengthen areas of weakness. Plus, the O’Connor and Hammond before him were essentially risk free moves. They didn’t cost any assets or use up any draft picks. At worst, they take up one of fifty contracted player spots on the team’s roster and if a GM can turn a free agent signing into a valuable asset either through development or trade, that is a win for the franchise. So in that regard, Ottawa is certainly going to benefit from signing O’Connor. The only real question is one of degrees.