When the Flyers selected Jay O’Brien with the 19th overall selection in the 2018 NHL Draft, the reaction from most Flyers fans was, “Who”? O’Brien was a high school player from Massachusetts. He played his high school years at Thayer Academy, a rather prestigious and well-known hockey school. Alumni who have gone on to have NHL careers include Dave Silk, Brooks Orpik, Charlie Coyle, Ryan Whitney, Jeremy Roenick and Tony Amonte. In fact it was Tony Amonte’s single season goal record (35 goals in 25 games) that Jay O’Brien would go on to shatter in his draft year (43 goals in 30 games). Still, he was a relative unknown to the average fan and would have quite a bit to prove going into his freshman year at Providence College.
Unfortunately, things did not go to plan for O’Brien. He suffered a concussion early in the season and followed that up with several other nagging injuries along the way, finishing with just two goals and five points in 25 games for the Friars. What really concerned most fans, however, was news from earlier this month that O’Brien would be leaving Providence College to play for the Penticton Vees of the BCHL. A disappointing, injury-riddled year in the NCAA was concerning as is, but to then leave the NCAA to play at a lower level junior hockey league? THE SKY IS FALLING!
Is it, though?
Well, if we had taken the time to let this story play out (something we as Flyers fans are very well known for *wink wink*), we would have seen that O’Brien was actually trying to transfer immediately to Boston University, rather than playing a year in the BCHL before transferring to play for the Terriers. Given this information, it is plausible to conclude – or at least assume – that O’Brien simply did not mesh with the program at Providence. Maybe he didn’t feel the system was a fit. Maybe he didn’t quite jive with the program as a whole. Maybe he just didn’t feel comfortable at Providence in general and wanted a fresh start elsewhere after a tough freshman year. This is all purely speculation and by no means am I reporting or breaking any news here. I’m simply offering alternatives to the wide-spread notion that O’Brien just couldn’t hack it last season.
The Flyers finished up Development camp with a 5-on-5 scrimmage Saturday evening. By no means should this be used as a cut and dry, home run evaluation tool. It’s early in the summer, they’ve been working on skating and skills, and for most if not all of these kids, it’s the first week they’ve played organized hockey since their seasons ended. Still, it’s a way to see flashes of what these players have to offer. I came away from that scrimmage impressed by what I saw from Jay O’Brien. He showed just about everything I had seen from him in my research leading up to last year’s draft. He was fast, he was agile, he showed off his stick-handling in the offensive zone. Most of all, he was tenacious. Whether he had the puck, his team had the puck or the opposition had control, O’Brien was on the hunt. He was the only player to draw a penalty in the scrimmage when he was hauled down after stealing a puck on the forecheck. I tweeted the following statement while watching the scrimmage and I’d like to share that here:
O'Brien will either be a strong bottom six forward or a really good top 6 forward, I have no idea which one.— Jake Couturieringer (@J_Fahringer) June 29, 2019
But he will absolutely be a pain in the ass to play against. He is relentless, all over the ice.
This pretty much sums up my thoughts on Jay O’Brien from the time they drafted him. Whether it was in the very few highlight and shift videos I found or the several scouting reports I had read, I always came away thinking of Jay O’Brien in this manner. He has a fairly wide range in which he could fall with respect to his potential, but there is no question in my mind that wherever he falls on that spectrum, he will absolutely be a pain to play against. And this is a trait I think we can all agree the Flyers have lacked over the past several seasons. Hextall didn’t do a good job of this at the NHL level, but looking at his drafts (Konecny, Lindblom, Rubtsov, Twarynski, Farabee, to name a few) there definitely seems to be a trend of players who are relentless and can frustrate their opponents. O’Brien fits that bill.
The numbers say players who struggle in their Draft+1 season take a big hit in their potential to make the NHL, let alone be impactful players. That said, it’s not a hard and fast rule and like any rule, there are exceptions. O’Brien had a tough year and injuries were not the only reason for his struggles. Flat out, he was not good enough. That being said, I think there’s reason to let this season play out and see if he can thrive in a new system with a clean bill of health.