Why Missing Matt O’Connor Doesn’t Hurt Vancouver

The Matt O’Connor derby came to an end this morning with the highly-touted undrafted college free agent choosing to sign with the Ottawa Senators instead of the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, or New York Rangers. While Canucks fans are certainly disappointed that their team didn’t land the big fish in the college UFA market once again, missing out on O’Connor isn’t necessarily a big deal.

How can failing to sign a guy with so much hype and buzz surrounding him be a very minor miss for Jim Benning and the Canucks? Read past the jump to find out.

We knew going in to today that highly-touted NCAA free agent Matt O’Connor had made his decision on which of four NHL teams he was going to sign with, and we knew that the Canucks were in the mix. Given that good undrafted free agents are rare and are always in demand, the resulting group of teams showing interest can result in something of a media frenzy and the hype machine growing out of control. As Chris Peters of CBS Sports writes:

The expectations on college UFAs get skewed because the optics of several NHL teams fighting over them gives the illusion that these players are massive impact players. That can be the case in very few instances as undrafted Tyler Johnson and Mark Giordano, who both signed free agent deals out of major junior, showed this season on their respective teams. 
It’s the low-risk, high-reward potential of undrafted UFAs that makes them so appealing. 

So already, you should temper your expectations around guys like O’Connor. NHL teams are aggressively targeting them not because they stand a fantastic chance of becoming a cornerstone piece, but because they can add serviceable depth to the organization for the cost of zero pre-existing assets and a contract space. Add in the potential that comes with all young lottery tickets, and you can see why players like O’Connor are so compelling. The media hype machine just gets out of control sometimes.

O’Connor is an intriguing prospect for sure, but he’s not a great one. He’s just had his first season where he’s posted pretty good numbers for an NCAA goalie at the age of 23, and he accomplished that playing behind one of the NCAA’s most structured and defensively sound teams. O’Connor didn’t have much of a track record of great success before that (0.920 is a lot less impressive in college than it is in the CHL, AHL, or NHL), and his numbers aren’t much different than what Thatcher Demko is currently doing. Demko is also nearly four years younger than O’Connor, so you’d expect O’Connor to be well ahead if he was a really high-quality prospect.

Of course, O’Connor also possesses a tantalizing set of tools that have made him desirable to NHL teams, which includes being 6’6. So there’s the scouting aspect to consider when projecting O’Connor as well, but even here I’ve heard some less-than-enthusiastic opinions. From college hockey scout Jeff Cox:

I also reached out to some industry experts to get their opinions on O’Connor and how close he is to NHL duty, and the consensus seemed to be that he wasn’t at all close. Mobility is apparently an issue for O’Connor, and while he’s big, he tends to be “behind the play, reaching, and opening holes.” Jacob Markstrom is said to suffer from the same issues, and he’s been absolutely lit up by NHL shooters while dominating the AHL.

(As an aside, I was also informed that Thatcher Demko is a very similar goalie that suffers from very similar problems. Still, Demko is pretty young for an NCAA goalie, and having just finished his draft+1 season, has plenty of time to add physical power to his core and lower body and work on his quickness and refine his movements. He’s a very, very good goalie prospect, but he’s still long ways away from being ready for pro.)

The sense that I got was that O’Connor won’t be ready for the NHL in the 1-2 year window that some media outlets speculated, if he’s ever ready at all. He needs a lot of work to get himself up to NHL speed, and it could take him until he’s 26 or 27 years old. By that time, who knows what the Ottawa Senators goaltending landscape will look like, and if he’ll be afforded the opportunity to crack an NHL roster.

Conservatively, O’Connor appears to project on the high end as anything from an AHL starter to a journeyman backup, while most guys that performed at his level in the NCAA tended to kick around the minor leagues for most of their professional careers. This says as much about O’Connor as it does about how difficult it is to land one of the 60 NHL goaltending jobs in the world – it’s rare that even elite amateur performers make the big show, let alone guys who are merely decent to good.

All in all, while the Canucks will likely need to shore up their goaltending depth this summer, they probably didn’t miss out on a massively valuable asset. O’Connor would’ve made the organization richer for sure, but he’s very much a lottery ticket and far from a sure thing. I’m an advocate of the “accumulate as many lottery tickets for as little cost as possible” method of goaltender development, especially since young goalies are erratic and difficult to project, and O’Connor would’ve been a good lottery ticket to get, but missing him isn’t the end of the world.

It’s not like O’Connor was the only goaltending prospect available on the open market either, as we’ve previously looked at a group of other goalies the Canucks could bet on to help fill out their organizational depth chart. Vancouver does need more young goalies though, especially since Eddie Lack isn’t young. At 27, we can count on Lack for strong performances for the next 4-5 years or so, but there needs to be someone ready for when he starts to decline. Benning should look to hedge his Demko bet with someone else and make an effort to grab some U-23 goalies in the near future.

    • *If* he develops into an NHL-caliber goalie. Goalies are voodoo, and that’s a big if. The Canucks would be wise to add a couple more prospects to their goaltending pipeline over the next season or two so they have a better chance of finding someone who ends up being NHL-caliber.

      • If GM Jim trades some of our 3rd line players for 2/3 round picks I’m sure he will pick another goalie. Signing Miller shows how much Benning believes in goaltending.

        Rather have a spot taken by a player younger with more upside than O’Conner

  • A nice to have, not a must have.

    Still, the team needs a good goalie pipeline, just as it needs a pipeline of defensemen and forwards.

    As we saw this season, injuries happen.

    If Corey Perry decides to take out Lack and Miller in one game, where does that leave us?

      • andyg

        Undrafted college goaltender is a high class athlete?

        These guys chose the places because it is favorable for them. Favorable meaning less competition. He wasn’t going to Rangers or Montreal…..

        Pathetic to not take the competition in a system as a factor. He watched Demko up close….that had nothing to do wit it Yo?..

  • Dirty30

    I do hope Managenent gets off the ‘sign the great goalie hope for six million’ cycle and start putting that money up front from D out.

    Yes a bad goalie will stink up the place but even a good one isn’t going to keep you going for long if the guys skating aren’t also scoring.

    Managenent owns this problem — particularly with six mil to Miller that could have gone elsewhere … Dumping that would make Sbisa’s contract a little less painful.
    I do wonder if there is a definitive plan or if Trader Jim just spins his office chair three times and throws a dart at his charts and goes with that result.

    • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

      All the painkillers on the planet amassed into one huge pile couldn’t take the sting off of that Sbisa contract. It’s an absolute dog. Less useful than Luongo’s remaining cap hit on the books, even, and that’s saying something.

      As for the Miller signing, I like yor “spin the chair three times and throw a dart” theory, but I don’t think it’s correct. I think Benning likes to think of his approach to drafting and signing as “old school”.

      Unfortunately for us as Canucks fans, history has shown the old school method to be more or less as random as your office chair and dart one.

      • andyg

        So by old school you mean to go out and spend time watching players and evaluating them based on what you and your scouts see with their own eyes.

        What other method is there!!

        Sit in an office and pour through fancy stats?

        • Dirty30

          Tell me what Benning could possibly have seen with his own eyes to justify re-signing Sbisa to this contract. Whether it’s fancy stats or just watching him he is terrible. Terrible. Can’t think on his feet, consistently gets into trouble regardless of how strong a forecheck gets sent his way, uses his size unevenly, makes poor decisions to jump up into the rush and doesn’t clear the front of the net particularly well.

          Benning makes the mistake trading for him (really a salary dump by Anaheim), Desjardins inexplicably plays him ahead of Weber, Stanton, Clendenning, Corrado or hell Sanguinetti/Biega for that matter, and then Benning compounds the error by resigning him. Dumb mistake. The Sedans should be pissed at the dumbass moves that management keeps making in surrounding them with scrubs like this. I can only hope that Benning continues to do a better job in talent evaluation than he does in trades (though Baertschi I think was a steal).

          • andyg

            You will never be happy with all the moves that any GM makes.(remember Gillis)

            I am not sure anyone understands the Sbisa contract. We can only hope that he gets better.

            I have been somewhat happy with their drafting but worry about Baertschi. I think I would rather have the second pick this year.

          • andyg

            I can’t wait to see Sbisa steps into skill players like Johnny Gaudreau and Conner McDavid next season, and then promptly see their linemates rage over Sibsa’s legal hit.

  • I know this is a pretty superficial beef, but I was a little tired of the hype machine on this guy by the end. The month long tour of a dozen cities, the breathless reports from Darren Dreger and Bob MacKenzie, narrowing the teams down to four, then the announcement on when he’d make his announcement…enough.

    I’m fine with him “taking his talents” elsewhere….

  • BuffaloBillsOfHockey

    The canucks are facing 15-20 years of mediocrity. No future here. No wonder he chose not to come!

    The canucks won’t do what needs to be done and go total rebuild. Bo and McCann will be surrounded by 3rd line overpaid waiver wire pickups at best as a yearly run to the playoffs inevitability fails. Good golie prospect, and also very smart.. Well do e Ottawa.