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:
Matt O’Connor is not an NHL caliber goaltender. He has good size and benefited from a team in front of him that dominated possession.
— Jeff Cox (@JeffCoxSports) May 9, 2015
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.