Opposing coach sees a ‘dynamite' O'Brien, whose days with Flyers appear over


In his third season as Vermont's head coach, Todd Woodcroft saw Jay O'Brien three times up close.

He never liked seeing him on the ice.

Translation: "I think he's dynamite, a dynamite player. He's one of the best college players that I've seen," Woodcroft said.

O'Brien is a Flyers prospect who just wrapped up his collegiate career in the Frozen Four. The 23-year-old center scored a goal Thursday night in the NCAA semifinals, but the Terriers fell short of the national title game with a 6-2 loss to top-ranked Minnesota.

The 2018 first-round pick of the Flyers finished his senior season with 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) in 39 games.

And, after a long and winding road, it appears O'Brien won't be a Flyers prospect for much longer. In his 32 Thoughts segment Saturday night, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman reported the Flyers have decided to not sign O'Brien to his entry-level contract by the Aug. 15 deadline.

As a result of parting ways, O'Brien would become a draft-related unrestricted free agent, while the Flyers would receive a second-round compensatory pick and save the contract spot.

O'Brien was not drafted by this Flyers regime. When he was taken at 19th overall in 2018, Ron Hextall was the Flyers' general manager and Chris Pryor the assistant general manager. The Flyers were questioned for possibly reaching with their pick of O'Brien, who was the 32nd-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting that draft.

Whether it was a reach or not, Woodcroft was impressed by the 2023 version of O'Brien. The Catamounts' coach has 19 seasons of NHL experience on his résumé, with roles including scouting and coaching. He watched O'Brien put up a goal, two assists and five shots over three meetings between Vermont and Boston University.

O'Brien, regarded for his innate scoring ability and elite hands, played on a loaded B.U. team. Was he a focal point or a complementary piece?

"I kind of group players into two groups. They're either drivers or they're passengers. And he's a driver," Woodcroft said Wednesday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "He's a 210-foot player, which means he's not limited to just the 200 feet. Like, he will go through the walls, he plays so well in between the dots. He's a shooting threat and he's a defensive threat.

"I didn't even know what his goals were because I didn't even really care. I was surprised, they were lower than I thought they would be. But B.U. has 16 elite forwards."

O'Brien has faced hurdles. He started at Providence, where he fought injuries and a difficult transition to the Division I level.

"Work on learning from this and how to battle adversity," O'Brien said in June 2019. "I think that's one of the biggest things in life is how you come back from adversity and I can't wait to prove that."

He then went to the BCHL for one season and scored in bunches with Penticton. The transition year led him to the Terriers for his final three years of college.

"Two things struck me," Woodcroft said. "One, he's sub-6-foot, which in a million years, I never would have said that because he plays way bigger than that. He plays with some passion, he plays with purpose, he is a detailed, detailed player. He would be a player when we would play against B.U., we would circle him, meaning, when he's on the ice, I need to make sure I'm sharp of who I have on the ice against him. Which, for me anyway, is an ultimate sign of respect that I'm trying to be aware of when Jay O'Brien was on the ice."

Woodcroft saw some Scott Laughton in O'Brien. Laughton was drafted at 20th overall in 2012. He was a scorer in junior hockey but, with time, carved out a role at the NHL level as a versatile, bottom-six type of player.

"If you would have said to me somebody who he reminds me of, I would say he's a right-handed Scott Laughton," Woodcroft said. "So just for fun, I went and I looked up Laughton, and they're both eerily similar, except Scott is a lefty and Jay is a righty.

"He's a really, really impactful player at the college level. ... He embodies that hard-working, never-cheating, blue-collar game. Maybe you look at stats and you think one thing, but his impact on the game is so heavy."

O'Brien, wherever he lands next, will have to climb some more and prove his game can translate to the NHL level.

"If you take centermen, there are 32 teams, times, call it five, there are about 160 NHL centermen that can be on rosters," Woodcroft said. "So Jay O'Brien is trying to get into the club of 160-odd NHL centermen. You look at organizations, they are going to probably have 10 or 12 centermen under contract, so the numbers, they go up. I think Jay O'Brien has what it takes to be an NHL centerman, I really do.

"I don't think that the game anymore is limited to how big you are. It's how big you contribute to your team and it's how big you contribute when you're on the ice. Now, he might start off in a four-to-six-minute role, but then he's going to get an eight-minute role and then he's going to get a specialty team and then he's going to be checking [Aleksander] Barkov and then he's going to be checking [Bo] Horvat. At some point, his career is going to evolve into that."

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