On a talent-laden team like the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, it’s easy for lesser-known players such as rookie Jim O’Brien to have low name-recognition. As far as the Maplewood, MN native is concerned, that’s just fine with him.
"Well it definitely helps flying a little bit under the radar," Jim O’Brien told Hockey’s Future. "I think when other teams are watching our games they tend to focus on guys like Kyle Okposo (NYI) and Erik Johnson (STL), so hopefully I can just continue to fly under the radar a little bit and go unnoticed."
That might be easier said than done now.
Prior to his arrival at the University of Minnesota, O’Brien played for the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP). In his two seasons with the USNTDP, O’Brien posted 75 points (33 goals, 42 assists) in 105 games. Last season, he helped guide Team USA to a gold medal at the 2006 IIHF U-18 World Championship in
During his stint with the USNTDP, O’Brien generated considerable interest from the NHL scouting community and collegiate recruiters alike. He was one of the most sought-after players by top D-I schools that included Michigan and Wisconsin, but O’Brien’s final decision came down to Minnesota and Colorado College. Even though the "U" seemed the logical choice for the native Minnesotan, he admits that the choice wasn’t exactly an easy one to make.
"I almost went to Colorado College. It really came down to Minnesota and them. They’re both great programs so it was a hard decision for me. I chose Minnesota because I was one of those boys who grew up watching them play. It’s also nice to be able to play in my home state and to be so close to my family."
O’Brien is one of a number of NCAA rookies that accelerated their high school education to play in the collegiate ranks this year. Despite still being of high school age, O’Brien himself made the choice to come to the Twin Cities this season.
"He wanted to come here this year. He was the one that was on the acceleration plan. We would’ve been fine either way had he waited a year or not. He was the one who chose to come here this year," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia told Hockey’s Future. "Jimmy played up the last two years and he wanted to continue to do that (accelerate). He’s a very good student from an academic standpoint, so it wasn’t an issue for him. He just had to realize that there was going to be a bigger adjustment period for him because of his age and lack of physical maturity."
With a birthdate of Jan. 29, 1989, O’Brien is the youngest player playing in D-I Men’s Ice Hockey this season.
His 6’2 frame, strength and his ability to use to them to great advantage is one of the things that immediately jump out about Jim O’Brien. While it is quite evident that he is still growing into his body, it’s the immense potential that has many scouts taking serious notice.
At Minnesota, O’Brien has gradually established himself to be quite a presence on the ice. In addition to his size and strength, his fiercely competitive nature and grittiness have made him a difficult individual for opposing players to play against.
O’Brien is a very good skater who is strong on his skates. While he can get around the rink pretty well, he could use some work on his acceleration and getting some fluidness in his strides. Lucia is quick to point out that as O’Brien adds size and strength to his frame, it will significantly improve many aspects of his game, including his skating ability.
"I think for Jimmy, it’s more of where he is going to get to when he fills out. He’s 6’2 and will be 200-210 when he really fills out. That’s when he’ll become the complete player and that’s two or three years down the line. You project players and where they are today, but it’s even more important where they can get to. I think Jimmy has got a pretty good top end. He’s going to get stronger in the weight room; it’s just a matter of time. He’s dedicated to that and puts in the time. He has to work on his lower body/leg strength, which will make him a better skater also."
Two of O’Brien’s best attributes are his hands and hockey sense. He has tremendous poise and patience with the puck and can make some beautiful tape-to-tape passes. O’Brien also makes great use of his long reach, particularly when battling for the puck along the boards or in the corners. He also possesses a fairly accurate shot with a quick release.
O’Brien is a very smart player who works hard and is mature well beyond his years. His decisions with the puck are remarkably good and he has great on-ice awareness. However, what sets O’Brien apart from many other collegiate rookies is that as good as he has shown that he can be in offensive situations, he’s even better in defensive situations. The care he takes in being responsible in his own end and his willingness to block shots help make him an excellent penalty killer.
A big reason behind O’Brien’s superb defensive play can be attributed to the position that he began his hockey career at. Though he is listed as and has played his entire rookie season thus far at forward (both at center and on wing), he actually converted to forward only a few years ago after starting out as a defenseman. Going back to play on defense in the near future may not be completely out of the question.
"Jimmy has inquired about moving to defense for us next year because that’s a position that he’s played. We’re going to leave that decision up to him whether he wants to move back and become a defenseman," said Lucia. "Up until two years ago, he’d been a defenseman all his life, so he’s pretty versatile in that way too. If he wants to stay up front as a forward, we’re fine with that as well."
His experience on the blueline may also partially explain why the NHLer that O’Brien views as his role model and greatest influence, Chris Chelios, is a defenseman and not a forward.
"I just try to try to work hard every day and show up to the rink with the same kind of attitude that he’s got about hockey," O’Brien said. "I think he plays the game the way it should be played. He competes and at the same time he’s a fabulous player. I try to go to the rink and work hard every day just like he has in his game."
So how does O’Brien describe himself?
"I’m the kind of player that’ll just do whatever it takes to win. There are so many great players on our team and it’s a privilege to be able to do whatever I can to help the team. I compete hard, just try to work on my weak points and try to become a more well-balanced player. I hope that I can help out defensively and offensively. I think that I can definitely develop in other areas but right now I just want to try and make something happen for the team and do whatever it takes to win because at the end of the day that’s what you’re playing for."
At the University of Minnesota
O’Brien has played in 32 games with Minnesota this season, posting 11 points (five goals, six assists). He currently leads the team with 49 penalty minutes.
O’Brien struggled offensively early on in the season. The turning point in his freshman campaign would come on Nov. 25 versus Michigan in the College Hockey Showcase. In that game, O’Brien posted three points, including his first two career goals to help lead the Golden Gophers to a resounding 8-2 victory. The performance also earned O’Brien his first WCHA Rookie of the Week honor.
As O’Brien explains, it is the extra work that he has done with his coaches outside of the team’s regular practice time that have helped to gradually bring together and improve the various aspects of his game.
"This whole year, I’ve been working with the coaches every day before and after practice. We work on a lot of in-tight stuff, such as shooting from the top of the circles down. We also work on a lot of feet stuff, like quick feet drills and rolling off, passing and just all kinds of stuff. They’ve been kind of enough to help me out and spend some extra time with me, so hopefully it starting to pay off now."
In college hockey, coach/player relationships are as unique as the individual teams, but the one common denominator amongst all of them is mutual respect. With a group like the Golden Gophers, those on the outside often overlook that aspect of what makes the team not only highly successful but very special as well.
"[Don Lucia’s] such a great coach. It’s kind of hard to describe. He keeps everybody happy and makes it fun to be at the rink but at the same time, he’s teaching you the game," O’Brien said of his coach. "He and the rest of the coaching staff can get it across to you in such a friendly way, that it’s kind of like they’re almost your friend. They’re all just great guys and they tell you what you’re doing wrong but at the same time, they’ll help you to fix it."
"Jimmy is the consummate team player and he has high expectations for himself. He has good skills. He can score, make plays and pass the puck. I think his competitiveness is one of his strengths," said Lucia of his young rookie. "He wants to get better and he’s willing to work to get better. He’s very committed and he’s going to get there with his dedication, commitment and work ethic."
Outlook for the draft
On the NHL Central Scouting’s Mid-Term Rankings, O’Brien is ranked 20th and is the only collegian appearing on the ranking within the top 30. The early general consensus around the scouting community is that O’Brien will be one of the very few, if not the only player coming out of thethis year that will most likely be taken in the first round.
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