Ottawa has been burned many times by U.S. college free agents. Arguably, the only truly successful (thus far) prospect Ottawa has acquired from this pipeline is current backup goalie, Andrew Hammond. The best of the rest signed by the team include such luminaries as Bobby Butler, Jesse Winchester, Cole Schneider and current prospect Buddy Robinson. While all have suited up at the NHL level, none would be considered an impact player. And these are relative success stories! There have been many signings that never panned out at all.
So, with this in mind, it’s understandable why Senators fans might be quick to dismiss a former NCAA free agent when things don’t seem to be going so well. Such, I feel, is the case with Matt O’Connor.
As we all know, O’Connor was the top prize of the 2015 NCAA free agent class. He is an intelligent player who experienced significant success at that level. Signed at 23 years old, he was more mature than a junior-aged prospect and, many thought, much closer to competing at the NHL level. And, sure enough, things looked great in Ottawa’s prospect and training camps – so much so that, when Hammond went down with an injury in camp, O’Connor was tapped (now infamously) with the start in Ottawa’s home opener. The Senators lost that game, but only by a score of 3-1 and O’Connor actually played quite well. Really, it’s only owner Eugene Melnyk’s comments with respect to the “stupidity” behind the decision on the part of former coach, Dave Cameron, to start O’Connor in that game that has tainted our memory of it.
From that game, O’Connor was assigned to a, frankly, atrocious Binghamton squad for seasoning. Finishing out of the playoffs for the second straight year and with a team total 241 goals against, defence was not that team’s strong suit. Arguably, neither was offence nor special teams, for that matter. Thus, while O’Connor did not acquit himself to the level we’d all hoped, perhaps there was good reason for that.
After all, until Hammond proved himself a capable goaltender behind Ottawa’s (itself less than stellar) NHL-calibre defence, he was a fair-to-poor goalie prospect for the team, going by his statistics in Binghamton. What turned Hammond’s game around, according to Hammond himself, was having regular access to goalie coach Rick Wamsley. Another of Ottawa’s prospect goalies, Chris Driedger, similarly credited Wamsley with guiding his own improvement.
(All of this said, there is legitimate argument that Wamsley wasn’t the wizard he might have been sold as.)
O’Connor suggested that working with Wamsley was at least part of the reason for signing with Ottawa. That he, perhaps, did not get the attention he expected might have contributed to his struggles. O’Connor floundered in Binghamton until December, when Wamsley paid a visit and worked with the prospect. That still left more than two months in which O’Connor was left to figure things out for himself. Once O’Connor got some instruction, he seemed to start to turn things around.
The point of reminding us of all this history is to argue that maybe Ottawa doesn’t need to use one of its draft picks on a goaltender this year. As Trevor Shackles points out in his article, the Senators have needs at every position. Perhaps a better use of Ottawa’s picks would be to address those other needs and wait and see on O’Connor.
Besides, it’s not as though the Senators don’t have other goalie prospects in their system. There is the aforementioned Driedger, who played reasonably well behind the same terrible Binghamton team – well enough to earn a call up to the Senators when Hammond sustained a second injury during the season. There is also Marcus Högberg, who has been identified as a promising goaltender and plays in Sweden’s top professional league. Finally, the Senators took Joey Daccord in last year’s draft with their 7th round selection. Daccord isn’t considered a particularly likely prospect to hit, but neither would be any goaltender that Ottawa took later than the second or third round in this year’s draft, either.
To write off Matt O’Connor after one rough season isn’t fair to him or the process behind grooming NHL goaltenders, who frequently do not establish themselves until age 25 or 26. With only six picks in this year’s draft. I’d rather see Ottawa’s brain trust focus on some of the team’s other areas of weakness and see what they have in O’Connor and the other goalies already in their system.