We have not had a chance to see a lot of Drew O’Connor during his brief NHL career, but every time we do see him I keep coming back to the same thought.
This guy looks like an NHL player.
Not a star.
Not a top-line player.
Not somebody that is going to score 30 goals for you.
But somebody that absolutely has a place on an NHL roster — and a good NHL roster — and can play a valuable depth role.
And boy is that something the Pittsburgh Penguins need right now. And in the future. And that is what makes his lack of ice-time so frustrating at times.
The Penguins are desperate for bottom-six help and O’Connor has, in my view, been one of the most useful players to occupy those spots this season, even in a limited role.
His overall raw numbers do not do anything to jump off the page at you. In 17 games he has three goals, two assists, five total points, and 20 shots on goal on 39 total shot attempts. Nothing crazy. Nothing that is going to overly impress you. But keep in mind, he has produced those numbers in about eight minutes of ice-time per game.
When you dig down to a per-60 minute rate, his production looks way more impressive. It is an alarmingly small sample size, yes, but his 1.29 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play are SECOND on the team behind only Sidney Crosby. His 2.16 points per 60 minutes are fifth behind Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Kasperi Kapanen (I feel like we could do an entirely separate post on just the mystery that is him). and Evgeni Malkin. His 1.07 individual expected goals per 60 minutes are tied with Jason Zucker for first on the team.
In short, he creates opportunities and he does a fairly decent job of converting them.
If you look at his career as a whole over the past three years (again, a small sample size) it has told a very similar story. He produces in the minutes he gets.
What makes that performance even more eye-opening this year is he is getting bogged down with defensive zone starts on the fourth line, yet the Penguins continue to push the play forward in his minutes. He is on the positive side of every possession category despite the defensive-minded usage and lack of ice-time.
He also seems to have found something playing alongside Danton Heinen.
That duo has only played about 60 minutes together, but they have crushed those 60 minutes, outscoring opponents by a 3-1 margin and again dominating the possession numbers despite getting almost no offensive zone starts.
The Penguins’ bottom-six has been a mess all year and it is clearly their biggest area of need approaching the trade deadline. But I do think it is fixable. An upgrade at third-line could really make a huge difference there, and with O’Connor and Heinen they might have the bones for a very good fourth line that might be more than just a minute-eating defensive trio. They might even be capable of playing a regular shift as part of a team that roles four lines.
Whatever role you want to use him (third line, fourth line, who cares), he has done enough to earn more playing time. Especially when the Penguins need more players like him to balance out his lineup.
Is he guaranteed to continue that same level of play we have seen in these limited minutes?
No way. Maybe the limited usage is why he is playing so well and playing him more might expose his flaws and shortcomings.
But at this point I am willing to take that chance. And the Penguins should be as well. Players can only do what they can with the role they are given. If they prove they are capable of handling that role, you give them more responsibility and see how they handle that. If they do, then you have a player that can help you. If they don’t, well then at least you know what you need to look for.
The Penguins need people in their bottom-six that can contribute, and O’Connor has done everything he can in the minutes he has been given.
Give him a few more and see what happens. It might work out.