Ugly exit interview did wonders for Senators youngster O’Brien

Ugly exit interview did wonders for Senators youngster O’Brien
Matt Puempel. (Julie Oliver/OttawaCitizen)

By Wayne Scanlan
OTTAWA — Jim O’Brien must have picked up windburn having so many Ottawa Senators prospects sail past him to the NHL.
Quietly, for this is a very quiet young man, O’Brien has settled in to be a steady performer as Ottawa’s third-line centre, helping fill the gap left by Jesse Winchester’s concussion. Winchester did skate on his own Friday.
O’Brien’s most recent work: a season-high 13 minutes played in the Senators’ 6-2 victory over Florida on Wednesday, punctuated by O’Brien’s first NHL goal to open the Senators’ scoring.
It’s a reflection of Ottawa’s youth movement that O’Brien, 23, is the fifth Senators player to have scored his first NHL goal this season — Stephane Da Costa, Kaspars Daugavins, Jared Cowen and David Rundblad, now with the Phoenix Coyotes, being the others.
O’Brien called the goal a “relief” and a “great feeling,” but it’s no better than the feeling of comfort he has in an NHL dressing room, nearly five years after Ottawa made him a first-round, 29th-overall pick in 2007, on the cusp of the transition from John Muckler to Bryan Murray as general manager.
“I was called up for a few games last year (six) and I played with quite a few of these guys with Binghamton (of the American Hockey League) last year, so I just know everybody,” O’Brien says. “It’s a bit more comfortable for me.”
Randy Lee, the Senators’ director of hockey operations and player development, believes O’Brien turned himself around after dealing with one of the toughest exit interviews any young player has faced here before heading home for the summer of 2010. This was after O’Brien’s first season in Binghamton, where he turned in a lacklustre eight-goal, 17-point season in 76 games.
O’Brien was essentially told to pick up his game if he didn’t want to face an exit from the entire organization.
According to Lee, O’Brien was a new man, emphasis on the word ‘man’, when he showed up for training camp in the late summer of 2010.
At six-foot-two and 200 pounds, O’Brien, a fluid skater out of the University of Minnesota and Seattle of the Western Hockey League, has always had the physical tools to play the game.
“They kind of gave me a kick in the butt there,” O’Brien says, reflecting back. “They just told me, ‘You’ve got to be a better player, we need more out of you’ … they said, ‘We’re not happy with you.’
“I went home (to Minnesota), had a really big summer (training), and I was a different player and a different person when I came back. It was a wake-up call.”
Without question, he was a better hockey player. Before helping Binghamton win a Calder Cup championship last spring, O’Brien tripled his production in the regular season with 24 goals and 32 assists for 56 points. The biggest difference, O’Brien said, was the work he put in to be more capable physically.
“You know, it’s hard out there,” he says. “There’s always guys on you, pushing on you. You have to be just a little bit quicker, stronger. You get to the puck faster, have a bit more time, and all those shoves don’t knock you off balance because you have a more solid foundation. It makes the game a whole lot easier out there.”
Senators head coach Paul MacLean believes O’Brien has taken his game to “another level” since training camp. Monday’s game on Long Island will be O’Brien’s eighth with the team since being called up from Binghamton, where he was red hot.
MacLean credits the player for getting the message.
“I thought at training camp his attention to detail in his game wasn’t real good,” MacLean said. “His ability to take direction was poor, I would say, but he went to Binghamton, he paid attention to what his coach (Kurt Kleinendorst) told him, and he worked at his game and his game has gone to another level.”
For now, O’Brien is a fixture as a third-line centre who can kill penalties.
“I’m getting more confident every day here,” he said. “It’s a constant work in progress, always.”

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