© — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram
Manchester Monarchs forward Zach O'Brien takes part in practice at Mile One Centre on Friday morning. The native of St. John’s, undrafted following a point-per-game major junior career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, took part in the St. John’s IceCaps training camp this past fall, but started the season with the team’s ECHL affiliate, the Ontario (Calif.) Reign. The Monarchs, who share the same farm team as the IceCaps, liked what they saw from the 5-9, 178-pound winger and offered him a 25-game tryout. The rookie hasn’t disappointed recording eight point (4G, 4A) in 14 AHL games.
Undrafted after a sterling major junior career, St. John’s native making most of chance with AHL’s Monarchs
Like another Newfoundland hockey player we all know, Zach O’Brien was deemed too slow, too small, too soft and generally too lax to do anything with pro hockey.
But like Michael Ryder, all O’Brien seems to do is produce.
Not that we’re comparing O’Brien, a rookie pro, to Ryder, who is just shy of 250 career National Hockey League goals.
It’s just that Ryder heard all the knocks, too — can’t skate, can’t do this, can’t do that.
All he seems to do is put pucks in the net.
“When you look at Mr. O’Brien,” Manchester Monarchs assistant coach Freddy Meyer was saying Friday morning, “you see a player with a lot of hockey sense, someone who gets to the right spots on the ice and knows what to do with the puck when he gets it.
“He sees the ice well, he’s clever with the puck. He’s been a pleasure for us to have around because he brings another facet of the game that we felt we needed, that is a guy who can make plays and execute and contribute to the offence.”
Pretty heady stuff, more so considering O’Brien has landed a regular gig with the Monarchs, who arrived in St. John’s this week with the most points of any American Hockey League team so far this season.
The Monarchs played the IceCaps last night (see game result at thetelegram.com) in the first of three meetings at Mile One (they play again tonight and Monday evening).
Ironically, O’Brien couldn’t make the IceCaps, a team which entered Friday’s slate of games ninth overall in the Eastern Conference.
The 5-9, 178-pound winger wasn’t drafted out of junior, despite averaging a point per game in 250 career major junior starts (amazingly, which might support the “too soft” concern, he managed only one minor penalty during his entire time in Rouyn-Noranda and Acadie-Bathurst).
He had a brief one-game audition with the IceCaps in the spring of 2012 and was invited to the St. John’s training camp last fall. Eventually, he was assigned to the ECHL’s Ontario, Calif., Reign.
“I knew I had to prove myself down there first,” said the 21-year-old St. John’s native. “I had a really good start in that league, so I was hoping to get a shot with an (AHL) team, no matter who it was.
“Manchester gave me that chance and they’ve been happy with the way things are going. And so am I.”
His stay in Ontario didn’t last long. After picking up a pair of goals and two assists in five games, O’Brien was signed to a 25-game tryout with the Monarchs after Manchester lost a number of bodies through recall to parent Los Angeles.
He got his first start Nov. 15 against the Portland Pirates, was scratched for a pair of games, and then went on to play 10 straight before he was sidelined for 10 games with an ankle injury.
O’Brien started the last three games for Manchester, scoring his fourth goal of the season last Sunday night in Providence.
In the 14 games he played for the Monarchs prior to Friday, O’Brien had four goals and four assists.
“He’s been a good part of our offence,” said Meyer, author of 281 NHL games during his playing days. “He’s a dynamic kid. He can score, and is very crafty with the puck.
“We’ve been real happy with his progress and his play.”
If there’s a knock on O’Brien – isn’t there always, regardless of the player? – it’s his skating. Not that he can’t skate, but his quickness might not yet be at the American league level.
O’Brien’s heard it all before, and acknowledges there might be some work required in that area.
“I knew a couple years ago my skating wasn’t that great, that I had to work on it,” he said. “I feel it’s getting better. There’s still some improvement needed, but I think right now my skating is pretty good.
“I’d like to be more explosive, but I’m working on it. You have to be fast to play pro hockey.”
Just as Ryder compensated for the debatable parts of his game with a shot that’s better than most in hockey, O’Brien makes up for a lack of quickness with an innate ability to read the play and be in the right position at the right time.
“And don’t forget,” Meyer said, “he’s still a young man. He’s getting a good taste of the AHL this year and some motivation to hit the weight room hard this summer to get stronger and faster and continue to add to his game.”
A game that might be gaining some appreciation.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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