Zach O’Brien admits it angers him sometimes, the suggestion that his lack of penalty minutes is an indication he plays a soft game.
O’Brien, the high-scoring Newfoundland Growlers forward from St. John’s, will never be confused for Tiger Williams.
In three full seasons of junior hockey, with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan, O’Brien racked up a grand total of — wait for it — two penalty minutes.
Prior to this year, through four minor pro campaigns split between the ECHL and American Hockey League, O’Brien’s spent 14 minutes in the penalty box.
This season, he’s gone all Dave Schultz, with six PIMS so far entering last night’s Growlers’ game in Atlanta.
“Career high,” he says with a smile.
In all seriousness, O’Brien says it doesn’t bother him when the topic of penalty minutes, or lack thereof, comes up. But when it’s intimated they’re an indication he doesn’t play tough, well, that’s when the gloves come off.
“It ticks me off, but I’m not going to start taking a ton of penalties because people are talking about it,” he says. “I just try to play a smart game, and I feel like I play a hard game. I’m not going to run somebody through the boards, but I’ll definitely go to the dirty areas.
“I just try to be smart with my stick. I’m a clean player, I guess.”
O’Brien’s coach, John Snowden, bristles at the notion O’Brien doesn’t get his nose dirty.
“No, no, no. No way,” said the Growlers’ mentor. “(ex-Detroit Red Wings great) Nick Lidstrom didn’t have big penalty minutes (only 590 in 1,827 career NHL games), and he was the best defenceman in the world forever.
“It’s because they play the game the right way that they’re never out of position. Zach’s a puck possession player and when he has the puck, he makes great things happen.
“If you watch his defensive game, he’s great in the D zone, he kills penalties. You can trust him in all three zones.
“Penalty minutes or not, he still plays a heavy game. Get the puck on his stick down low and you’re not getting it back. That’s an indication of him being willing to play that way and go into hard areas. He’s definitely involved. He drives the play.”
Alas, when you speak of O’Brien, you speak numbers.
And how about these stats? Through 37 games entering Thursday’s game, O’Brien had 19 goals and 45 points, tops on the Growlers and good for 17th overall in the league. And that’s despite missing 10 games in October and November with a broken finger.
And how’s this for an impressive stat? Of the 37 games he’s played, O’Brien has registered at least one point in all but 11.
“He’s shown he’s going to bring it every night,” Snowden said. “He plays the same way, I would say, every way 99.9 per cent of the time. He’s a gamer. And he has elite talent and skill, especially in this league.
“He can make plays in tight spaces, he sees a play before it develops. He’s been a leader in terms of doing things the right way every day being a pro.
“I don’t enough good things to say about him. He’s an outstanding player.”
A product of the St. John’s Fog Devils major midget system before going away to play junior, O’Brien was an undrafted free agent following three years in Bathurst in which he scored 47 and 50 goals.
If he wasn’t a little on the small side (he’s listed at 5-11, but is probably shorter than that), and if he was only a bit quicker O’Brien would be an NHLer.
Most agree he has NHL skills.
Still, he’s enjoyed a fine minor pro career, winning a Calder Cup with the 2015 Manchester Monarchs. He wasn’t just a passenger, either, contributing nine points in 19 post-season games.
He is one of only seven players from this province to win an AHL championship.
In the spring of 2012, following his 50-goal campaign in the Q, O’Brien turned pro in St. John’s when the IceCaps, then under Winnipeg’s banner, gave him a game.
Nothing came of it with the Jets organization. He returned to Bathurst as an overager, scored 47 goals and turned pro the next season, 2013-14, with the Monarchs after signing an AHL contract.
Needless to say, O’Brien figured his shot at playing pro in his hometown was done.
“When word came that the ECHL was coming, yeah, I was definitely interested,” said O’Brien, who played most of last season with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors (43-6-17-23) and a brief period with the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder (12-5-7-12), is excited to be home playing in front of family and friends.
At 26, he’s one of the elder statesmen on the Newfoundland squad that’s still trying to make its mark in town.
“There’s definitely a lot of talent here,” he said. “There are a lot of guys in this league who are very skilled who aren’t playing in the NHL for one reason or another, but there are also some guys who will end up in the National Hockey League. No doubt about it.
“I know one thing, it’s exciting to be part of this first Growlers team,” he said.
The Growlers were originally scheduled to play the Atlanta Gladiators Wednesday night, but the Newfoundland team was prevented from getting to Atlanta because of the snarl at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport which saw hundreds of flights cancelled because of a snowstorm to hit the city.
It’s the first of five road games for the Growlers that will take them to Georgia, South Carolina and Ontario.