By now, most readers here will have heard about Matt O’Connor, the 23-year-old college free agent currently enjoying a career year as the starting goaltender for Boston University. O’Connor currently has a job; he turned aside 32 of 33 shots last night to help BU advance to the Hockey East Final, but in short order his college season will be done and he’ll be looking for his next challenge.
It might come as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, and it might come before the end of this season.
Edmonton’s interest in O’Connor goes back to before Christmas, when Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported on Hockey Night in Canada that Oilers’ general manager Craig MacTavish had met with the player. My Cult of Hockey colleague Bruce McCurdy transcribed Friedman’s comments at the time:
There’s a teammate of [Jack Eichel] by the name of Matt O’Connor. He’s a goaltender, 6-foot-6, he’s going to be 23 in February, he has a 1.67 goals-against average. O’Connor is going to be a free agent after this year. There’s a lot of interest especially by Canadian teams. Toronto met briefly with him earlier today. Craig MacTavish met with him briefly after a game a couple of weeks ago and it’s expected Oilers will meet with him further. O’Connor is going to have a lot of interest, Vancouver and Ottawa also among those teams taking a look.
O’Connor was never drafted because he’s a bit of a late-bloomer. A few months younger than Taylor Hall, he was originally eligible for the 2010 Draft but was putting up unremarkable totals in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (not to be confused with the OHL). He had two more mediocre USHL seasons before jumping to the college game.
He was immediately solid for BU in his first season, posting a 0.910 save percentage over 19 games in 2012-13. Those numbers improved to 22 games and a 0.920 save percentage the following year; this season they have increased yet again, with O’Connor playing 30 games and managing a 0.930 save percentage (he’s gone 21-3-4 behind a powerhouse team).
He has size, he has results, he’s free for the taking and so naturally he’s of interest to Edmonton and much of the rest of the NHL. The Oilers, though, have something that a lot of those other teams lack.
An NHL Opportunity
According to an NHL source, there are 14 teams that can be characterized as having strong interest in signing him. Five of those teams have already offered to play him in the NHL this season in order to burn a year on what would be a two-year entry-level deal.
It’s a reasonable bet that Edmonton is one of the handful of teams offering O’Connor a chance to play in the majors immediately. The club has nothing to lose. Even if the results mattered (and at this point, they don’t) the injury to Viktor Fasth means that the backup job has been held by Richard Bachman for a significant period of time, and has also meant that Ben Scrivens has started virtually every game. Scrivens’ performance has been nothing to write home about; in brief cameos Bachman’s has been worse.
The Oilers can make a case that the NHL opportunity in Edmonton extends beyond playing this spring. Beyond 21-year-old Laurent Brossoit, the Oilers lack a legitimate goalie prospect. They have only one goalie under contract for next season, the disappointing Scrivens, and the chance to earn a spot on next season’s NHL depth chart is obvious.
At worst, O’Connor could look to be splitting time with Brossoit in California next season. At best, he could use a late opportunity in 2014-15 to launch his NHL career immediately.
None of this is totally unique to the Oilers. To pick an obvious example, the Arizona Coyotes are in a very similar boat, with an uncertain starter (Mike Smith), no real backup and a lack of legitimate NHL goalie prospects. Other teams will certainly make pitches, and O’Connor will have a number of options. Edmonton’s a good opportunity and the team could certainly use him, but it’s also far from being his only possible destination.
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