BUFFALO – Center Jay O’Brien’s decision to continue his burgeoning hockey career in high school was met with some skepticism.
After all, NHL Draft prospects enjoy the option of developing in top junior leagues. O’Brien could’ve spent his senior season playing in the United States Hockey League, a circuit known for producing NHL talent.
Some people – “There was a little bit of outside noise,” O’Brien said – tried to talk him out playing at Thayer Academy in his native Massachusetts, a team coached by former NHL All-Star Tony Amonte. But O’Brien felt strongly about carving out the path he wanted.
“I want to do my own thing,” O’Brien said Saturday after undergoing fitness testing at the NHL Scouting Combine inside HarborCenter.
So O’Brien, 18, spent the 2017-18 season at Thayer, earning All-USA Boys Hockey Player of the Year honors.
O’Brien utterly dominated the competition, scoring a whopping 43 goals and 80 points in only 30 contests. After Thayer fell just short of a championship, he played one game with the Youngstown Phantoms, who hold his USHL rights. He also occasionally joined Team USA’s under-18 squad for some exhibition games.
“No knock on the USHL and all those other leagues,” said O’Brien, who will attend Providence College next season. “Kids have their different paths. I think there’s something to be said for playing for your school, kind of playing in front of your teachers and your students and kids you see every day.”
O’Brien’s story might sound familiar. Before the Sabres drafted Casey Mittelstadt eighth overall last year, the center spent his senior season playing at Eden Prairie High School. Mittelstadt joined the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers before and after his high school campaign.
“That’s something I respect,” O’Brien said of Mittelstadt’s decision to play high school hockey. “He’s … going to be an unbelievable NHL player. (He’s) someone who’s a pretty good role model and kind of had the same path as me.”
Following a strong freshman year at the University of Minnesota, the Sabres signed Mittelstadt in March.
If the 5-foot-10, 180-pound O’Brien lasts until the second round June 23 in Dallas, he could be an intriguing high school option for the Sabres with the 32nd pick.
“He’s a dynamic offensive player, thinks the game very well,” NHL Central Scouting’s Dave Gregory said. “One of those (players who’s) two steps ahead in the playmaking and (possesses) a great compete level to go with it. So very, very good upside for him.”
O’Brien, who met with the Sabres at the combine, said: “I just like to play with pace, use my compete and hockey sense just to make plays all over the ice. I like to have the puck on my stick, I like to shoot the puck a lot.”
Drafts can be notoriously hard to predict after the first 15 or 20 picks. The talent gap between, say, a late first-rounder and a middle second-rounder can often be slim.
Thanks to a deep prospect pool this year, trying to peg where O’Brien could be picked is difficult. Central Scouting ranked him 32nd in its final list of North American skaters.
“There’s that long gap of players that could go anywhere in there, so it creates teams seeing the guy they like still hanging around, they may make a move for him or they’ll let someone fall to them and be very happy where they got him,” Gregory said. “But there’s going to be a lot of picks that the teams feel they got a lot of value because of that varying opinion.”
Gregory’s opinion is O’Brien’s decision to play high school hockey will pay off.
“In the case of Casey, it worked out well, and I see the same thing happening with Jay, because he’s in an environment to thrive and be successful, and when he’s had the opportunity to play at a higher level, he’s adapted very quickly,” Gregory said. “So he’s not falling behind because of that reason.
“You got to take the path that’s right for you. He knew he was going to college next year and he had those few opportunities to play at higher levels. So I think it’s a good path for him.”
Rasmus Dahlin, the defenseman the Sabres will almost certainly draft first overall June 22, on eating chicken wings two days ago: “It was good, but I probably took (them a) little too spicy. I’ve got to go with the mild next time.”
Dahlin, like the other youngsters, underwent fitness testing Saturday. If you care, the Swede did 10 pull-ups.