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Sens sign NCAA free agent O'Connor, land new big body – & big brain – for crowded crease

For weeks, speculation has built as to the destination for NCAA free agent goalie Matt O'Connor. A number of teams were interested – including the Oilers, Rangers and Canucks – but O'Connor chose the Ottawa Senators, who are getting a big body in net, and a big brain in the Boston University student.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

For weeks, speculation has built as to the destination of Boston University goaltender Matt O'Connor, an unrestricted free agent highly-regarded and hotly pursued by a number of NHL teams. The 23-year-old made his decision early Saturday afternoon, rejecting overtures from the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers to sign a two-year contract with the Ottawa Senators.

The signing of the Toronto native to a two-year deal crowds the Sens' crease to an even greater degree than it was already. Ottawa has – for now, anyway – three netminders with NHL experience in its employ, including veteran and starter Craig Anderson, 23-year-old Robin Lehner, and recent sensation Andrew "The Hamburlgar" Hammond, and O'Connor will be aiming to get there as soon as possible. Hammond is an unrestricted free agent and Senators GM Bryan Murray could deal his rights before he hits the market, but if Ottawa plans on retaining Hammond's services, something will have to give with either Anderson (who has three years left on his contract and a $4.2 million salary cap hit) or Lehner (signed for two more years at a $2.25 million cap hit).

But enough about the future. The present-day news is the Senators landed a big body in the 6-foot-5 O'Connor, but they also signed a young man with a big brain and every intention to make his mark on and off the ice.

O'Connor undoubtedly will give his all to Ottawa, whether or not he begins the year in the NHL. But he isn't one of those all-or-nothing hockey prospect archetypes: he's already made the most of his collegiate experience and could complete a Master’s Degree in public health if he chooses to return to school for his senior year.

Nevertheless, O’Connor’s stellar play on the ice and commitment to his game despite going undrafted in 2010 has made him who he is now. And he’s thrilled with the way things have unfolded.

“I’ve had time to mature and grow,” O’Connor said. “In a way, this is a weight off my shoulders: you don’t have to deal with one team coming to watch you play and the pressure of that night; you can impress anyone watching. So I think slipping through the draft has paid off for me and been an advantage.”

After a rookie year in which he posted a .910 save percentage in 19 games, O’Connor improved his showing in that category every season and in the 2014-15 campaign registered a 25-4-4 record, .927 save percentage and 2.18 goals-against average in 35 regular season games while leading his team within one game of the 2015 NCAA Championship. He played on a high-profile squad thanks to superstar Jack Eichel, but O’Connor was on the radar of NHL GMs well before Eichel arrived, and during the negotiating process, he was contacted by at least a half-dozen teams trying to persuade him to join them. They were attracted by his size and athleticism, but given that a goalie’s mental makeup is virtually as crucial to his success as his instincts or reflexes, it’s O’Connor’s calm aura that was one of his best selling points.

“He’s got a maturity beyond his years and a great work ethic,” Boston University head coach David Quinn said of O’Connor. “Put all that together with a guy who’s 6-foot-5, and you’ve got someone everybody wants a piece of.”

Away from the game, O’Connor is intrigued by environmental health, food systems, farming mechanisms and sustainability. And although they won't be teammates in Edmonton, he looks to the captain of one of the teams that showed interest in him as an example of the effect athletes can have inside and outside their sport.

“Andrew Ference is pretty cool – an interesting role model who’s environmentally conscious and is making an NHL career for himself,” O’Connor said of the Oilers defenseman. “I’d definitely like to go for lunch with him one day.”

This is an updated version of a story that appeared in THN's 2015 Future Watch edition. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.



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