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Will O’Connor Step Up After Strong Team USA Showing?



Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew O'Connor

The annual IIHF world championship tournament generates considerable attention in much of the hockey universe.

The United States is a striking exception to that.

North American fans tend to fixate on the Stanley Cup playoffs at this time of year, although there generally is more interest in the world championships in Canada than there is in this country.

It’s understandable that hockey devotees on this side of the Atlantic opt to focus on the playoffs. Those routinely produce compelling storylines, like how Florida will play for the Cup after barely qualifying for the postseason, and the rosters of teams competing in the IIHF event tend to be watered-down.

That’s particularly true of Team USA and Canada, partly because so many of their top talents are still chasing the Stanley Cup while the world championship is being contested. What’s more, after going through a grueling NHL season, players from those two countries seem more likely to pass on an invitation to play at the worlds than many of their European counterparts.

Think about it: If the U.S. put together its best roster, would Casey DeSmith really have been the No. 1 goaltender? Would Nick Bonino have been captain? Would Drew O’Connor have gotten into Nokia Arena in Tampere, Finland without buying a ticket?

But even if the tournament already has been largely forgotten by the sliver of U.S. fans who knew it was happening — not that the sting of come-from-ahead, overtime losses in the semifinals and bronze-medal game will fade anytime soon for the members of Team USA — it could have a significant effect on the careers of some of the participants.

Guys like Cutter Gauthier, the 19-year-old Philadelphia Flyers prospect who is young enough to compete in next winter’s world junior tournament but scored seven goals in 10 games.

He’s expected to return to Boston College for his sophomore season, but regularly displayed a quick release and accurate shot that should serve him well when he turns pro. And Gauthier is not shy about using it; he finished with a tournament-high 57 shots on goal, 18 more than Canadian forward Tyler Toffoli, who placed second on that list.

But perhaps no player’s performance was more of a revelation at the tournament than that of O’Connor, a bottom-six winger for the Pittsburgh Penguins during much of the 2022-23 season. When he wasn’t laboring for their farm team in Wilkes-Barre, anyway.

O’Connor shifted to center during his stint with the national team, and took on an appreciably larger role than he filled with the Penguins.

He used his speed effectively, won a healthy share of puck battles and became a fixture on the penalty-kill after averaging just 33 seconds of shorthanded work per game in the NHL.

O’Connor finished the tournament with three goals and five assists, tying for 15th place in the tournament scoring race, and his plus-minus rating of plus-8 tied for the seventh-best.

It’s important to remember that the world championships are quite different from the NHL; the playing surface there is larger, the caliber of competition lower.

Still, faring so well there should provide a confidence boost for O’Connor, who likely established himself as an NHL regular during the past season.

He’s not going to develop into the league’s next dominant power forward, but perhaps he can grow into a middle-six role. And presumably getting a favorable review from Team USA coach David Quinn, who was Mike Sullivan’s college teammate and remains a close friend, probably won’t hurt his standing going into training camp.

Assuming, of course, that O’Connor remains with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, with the right to go to salary arbitration.