Could O’Connor Become Net-Front Guy Power Play Needs?
Drew O’Connor took some significant strides during the 2022-23 season toward locking up a spot on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ major-league roster.
Although his game is still being developed and refined, O’Connor has good size (6 foot 3, 200 pounds) and seems earnest about becoming a more responsible and reliable contributor.
At the very least, he’s proven that he’s a capable bottom-six winger at this level.
What O’Connor hasn’t shown is that he should be counted on to be a regular point-producer in the NHL: He has eight goals and nine assists in 78 games with the Penguins, including five goals and six assists in 46 games during the season that concluded last month.
How many of those 17 career points have come on the power play? Rounded up, uh, zero.
Considering that he averaged 79 seconds of ice time when the Penguins had a man-advantage in 2020-21, his rookie season, but only two seconds of power-play time in 2022-23, there wouldn’t seem to be much reason to expect him to add to his power-play points total anytime soon.
But maybe, just maybe, he should be given more of an opportunity to do just that.
One of the reasons the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play under-performed during the past season was the frequent lack of a meaningful net-front presence.
A guy to set screens and obscure the goaltender’s vision, get deflections and rebounds and, in general, create chaos that could cause the opponent’s penalty-kill to break down.
Jake Guentzel’s deft touch and hand-eye coordination allow him to convert rebounds and deflections when the Penguins have an extra man — he scored 11 of his team-leading 36 goals on the power play — so it’s no surprise that he often filled the net-front role for the No. 1 unit.
But while Guentzel is fearless and wouldn’t give up his space if he were being mauled by a grizzly bear, at 5 foot 11, 180 pounds, he also isn’t likely to do any serious damage to the bear.
O’Connor not only could withstand the punishment inherent in operating around the crease, but would be capable of handing some out, as well. And he certainly is big enough to disrupt a goaltender’s sightlines if he positions himself correctly.
Now, none of this is to suggest that O’Connor is a natural for the job, that he should be plugged into the No. 2 power play on the first day of training camp and remain there indefinitely. Until he’s promoted to the top unit, anyway.
The net-front guy has to do more than disrupt the penalty-kill; he has to be able to capitalize on the scoring chances that result from doing so, and O’Connor hasn’t established offensive credentials at this level yet.
Oh, he had two goals and an assist in Team USA’s 6-3 pre-tournament victory against Germany at the world championships Tuesday, but scoring against watered-down national teams in an exhibition game isn’t the same as doing it in the world’s best league; O’Connor has just one two-goal game with the Penguins.
But he did generate goals during two years at Dartmouth, piling up 38 in 65 games. O’Connor also has 27 in 73 games with the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre, including eight in 20 games there during the past season.
Now, players routinely put up big numbers at one level, but not much at the next, and it’s possible that Drew O’Connor’s contribution to the Pittsburgh Penguins never will go beyond being an effective forechecker and diligent two-way player.
But given how their power play could benefit from having a consistently effective net-front presence — especially if actually shooting the puck when opportunities to do so present themselves becomes standard procedure — perhaps he should get a chance to audition for the role.