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Drew O’Connor’s Stock is Going Up. Way, Way Up

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

Missing the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second year in a row wasn’t the Pittsburgh Penguins’ only disappointment in the 2023-24 season.

Just the biggest.

But for all that went wrong, all that did not go as planned, there were some positives.

The relentless brilliance of Sidney Crosby’s two-way game. The consistently strong play of guys like Bryan Rust and Marcus Pettersson. The high-energy example set by Michael Bunting after he was acquired from Carolina. The late-season work of Jack St. Ivany and Ryan Shea on the No. 3 defense pairing.

And then there is Drew O’Connor’s continued development, which has transformed him from a borderline NHLer — he appeared in 20 American Hockey League games as recently as the 2022-23 season — to a potential difference-maker for the Penguins.

He hasn’t reached that level yet, and perhaps he never will, but given the current trajectory of his career, it certainly seems possible.

O’Connor has good size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), the defensive acumen and instincts to be an effective penalty-killer and enough offensive ability to put up 16 goals and 17 assists in 79 games during the just-concluded season.

That he scored six of those goals when the stakes were highest — during the 8-1-3 surge that nearly lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins into the playoffs — suggests that he performs well under pressure, too,

“I feel good about the progress I’ve made, from last season — even the previous season — up to this point,” O’Connor said during the team’s Breakup Day gathering.

Although O’Connor’s game is probably best-suited to a middle-six role, at least at this stage of his development, he did a credible job on the No. 1 line, alongside Crosby and Rust, when given an opportunity there.

“It was a pretty special experience, playing with a guy like (Crosby),” O’Connor said. “I think I learned a lot, playing with him for that little while. He was so helpful for me. Helped me with things I needed to work on. Helped me with the timing of things, and how to play with him.”

Count Crosby among those impressed by how he filled that void on the left side of the top line.

“(O’Connor) is a guy who got some more opportunity with some of the changes, and I think he ran with it,” Crosby said. “He got a lot of responsibility and played great for us, especially in the second half. It seems like he just continued to get better and better. That’s a credit to him, the way he works and his ability to raise his game.”

While it’s impossible to say when O’Connor got his game on its current trajectory, it’s not unreasonable to trace it back to his play with Team USA at the 2023 world championships.

He handled a variety of duties for that club, and put up three goals and five assists in 10 games. While O’Connor might have been overshadowed a bit by the likes of Cutter Gauthier, the then-Philadelphia prospect who later forced the Flyers to trade him when he made it known that he would not sign with them, he elevated his overall game considerably during that tournament.

“I had a great experience last year, had a ton of fun,” O’Connor said. “I think it was a big confidence-builder for me, playing in that situation.”

He’s not interested in staging a sequel this spring, however, even though the Penguins’ failure to qualify for the playoffs means he is available to participate in the competition, set for May 10-26 in Czechia.

“(The plan is) just stay back here and kind of focus on some of the things I need to work on in my game, personally,” O’Connor said. “Work on getting in the gym a little bit, and be ready to hit the ground running next year.”

While it’s standard practice for players to say they want to improve every facet of their game between seasons, O’Connor acknowledged some specific areas he hopes to upgrade.

“That next step (will involve) getting a little better at the net-front, finding ways¬† to score goals there,” he said. “Continuing to work on puck-protection. Making plays off the rush. I think that it’s something I got better at throughout the year, but there’s still more room for more growth there. Just finding opportunities to make plays, buy time for myself when I’m skating in the zone off the rush and look to make those plays when they’re there.”

Accomplish all of that, and he could be even more of a force than he was during the stretch drive in 2023-24. And, in the process, earn a hefty raise over the $925,000 he’ll be paid next season.

“I think I made some big steps this year,” O’Connor said. “I’m excited to kind of reach my potential.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins should be excited about that, too.