By Kirk Luedeke
In discussions of the NHL Entry Draft, you’ll often hear the term “crapshoot” to describe the process and end result for a team and the bulk of its picks in any given year.
While that point has some merit when considering the inexact science of projecting 17- and 18-year-olds (for the most part) as eventual 20-something pro players, it also suggests that NHL clubs are at the mercy of pure chance when it comes to the draft.
In the case of Milton Academy Mustangs defenseman and captain Rob O’Gara, the Boston Bruins were purposeful in their selection of the Nesconset, N.Y. native at the end of the fifth round last June. In time, the raw but impressive prospect could pay dividends at the highest level. If O’Gara eventually pans out as an NHL player for the B’s, then he will be part of a calculated plan that saw the 6-foot-3, 185-pound rearguard go from being a relative unknown on the Long Island Royals of the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League to a prep champion and top draft candidate coming out of the Independent School League last year.
“I think as a defenseman I’m a steady, puck-moving player who can get involved on offense,” O’Gara told New England Hockey Journal this week while he was at home for the holidays. “I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘stay-at-home’ kind of player, but I am certainly a defensively minded one.”
A year ago, he was in his first prep hockey campaign under head coach Paul Cannata (West Roxbury, Mass.) and often found himself paired with 2010 Vancouver fourth-rounder Pat McNally, another Long Islander with a penchant for goal scoring and freewheeling all over the ice. As such, O’Gara often found himself playing back and contending with the inevitable by-product odd-man rushes that McNally’s aggressive style produced.
This season, O’Gara has dedicated time to rounding out his game and putting more emphasis on production and helping his club on offense.
“I like the fact that I can work more on the offensive side as opposed to how I played last season,” he said. “I’m running the power play, which is a great experience for me. I’m trying to be patient with the puck and focusing on moving the puck around in the offensive zone and being able to skate it up the ice.
“I like to jump into the play whenever I can, but I also try to keep things simple and remember that I have to take care of things in my own end first.”
Coming off his school’s first championship since 1967, O’Gara now finds himself as the leader of a young, inexperienced squad having graduated some 13 seniors from a year ago.
“It has been the polar opposite (experience) from a year ago for me,” he said of Milton’s 2-6-1 start. “We had a lot of seniors who had a whole bunch of experience than I did, and I kind of did my own thing and played my game as I figured it all out.
“This year, I’m having to lead by example, play more of an offensive role for my team and help the younger guys as much as I can. It’s a whole lot different, but I’m having a lot of fun with it.”
The 151st overall selection in 2011 likely would have been an earlier pick had O’Gara spent more than one season at Milton. Given his natural size (albeit on a very lean frame right now), mobility, smarts and character O’Gara is the prototypical modern blueliner: as he matures and continues to develop his game, he could evolve into one of Boston’s better options at the position.
O’Gara got to spend a week in early July at Bruins development camp, where he showed off his strong skating skills and smooth footwork. Although he was the only high school player in attendance, he flashed some two-way potential and showed off an interesting developmental curve that should be headed upward as he finishes his prep career and moves onto Yale University next season.
“It’s all been very exciting,” O’Gara said of his time with the other Boston prospects in Wilmington, having turned 18 the day he reported. “It was important for me to have that experience and see the level I have to get to. It’s really going to help me and I’m looking forward to next summer.”
O’Gara said that he spent a lot of time with fellow defenseman David Warsofsky (Marshfield, Mass.) on and off the ice, and also hung out with goaltender Zane Gothberg and Union College center (and camp invite) Josh Jooris during the team’s downtime and community service events.
He also admitted that his first welcome to pro hockey moment came on the camp’s first day, leaving just about everyone there sore from the high level of exertion.
“That first day, we woke up really early for the physicals, went right into testing and then skated,” he said. “That was longest day of the week by far, but getting through that, even though I was hurting pretty good, was a real confidence booster for me. I figured that if I could get through that, I could get through anything.”
O’Gara added that he and his mates spent a good amount of time in the hotel hot tub each night during their down time.
The quality time the youngster spent with his peers in the Boston organization has gone a long way toward preparing him physically and mentally for the challenges that lie ahead. Last summer, Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney remarked that like 2007 second-rounder Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.), O’Gara could see upwards of four or five more development camps between now and the time he’s ready to make a definitive case for a job with the big club.
Whether O’Gara can achieve that objective of earning an NHL spot in Boston remains to be seen, and that gets back to the uncertainty that comes with identifying, drafting and developing prospects, especially those taken in the later rounds. However, to assert that Bruins’ selection of O’Gara was akin to a roll of the dice is selling both player and organization short.
“We had a chance to see Rob quite a bit last season and were impressed with his potential,” Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning said recently. “The nice thing about him is that he has a lot of time to develop as a player and he doesn’t have the pressure to try and establish himself on our hockey club right away. It’s a good situation for us and for him.”
O’Gara meanwhile will continue to embrace his role as Milton’s go-to defender and leader as he prepares to join Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.) and the Yale Bulldogs for the next major stage in his quest to become an NHL player.
“Everyone is bringing their A-game against us this year,” he said. “We just have to take it in stride and do our best.”