Leave no stone unturned. That is one of the most important scouting mantras.
Every year, a few high school players are drafted to the NHL, be it from the passionately followed Minnesotan circuit, elsewhere in the US, or in smaller Canadian leagues. There are gems to be found everywhere in the hockey world, and scouts are paid to find them.
Jay O'Brien is a top-ranked prospect a few months before the draft, but there's an aura of mystery that surrounds him as he hasn't received the coverage of other players, spending his draft season in a New England prep school league, playing for Thayer Academy.
Birthplace: Hingham, Massachusetts, USA
Weight: 174 lbs.
Team: Thayer Academy
O'Brien dominated that league, finishing as its top scorer with a ridiculous 80 points in 30 games, including 43 goals. Even when those numbers are put into perspective — the high school league is far from the competitive environment of the USHL, the only Tier I US junior league — they still capture the imagination.
The draft-eligible prospect made the conscious choice to stay with Thayer Academy this year, and not join the Youngstown Phantoms in the United States Hockey League, stating to the New England Journal that he preferred playing close to home, giving him an opportunity to spend more time in the gym training rather than on the very long bus rides that are associated with the USHL.
O'Brien has committed to Providence College and will play NCAA hockey. Adding more strength and working on his explosiveness made sense to him, considering the challenges that will await him next year facing much older and mature players. He sought the advice of Ryan Donato, who followed a similar path in his draft year before joining Harvard University; something that, all things considered, worked out very well for the Boston Bruins forward who was drafted 56th overall.
O'Brien didn't spend his draft season only playing against high school competition. He was offered some time with US National Development Team earlier in the year as the team started its season. As he was not going to a be a part of the program, he wasn't given many minutes, but he still made an impression playing against the Division I College, a tough opposition for junior-aged players.
He also joined the Cape Cod Whalers as they battled in the Tier I U18 National tournament, scoring eight points in the same amount of games.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Future Considerations: 42
Hockey Prospect: 31
NHL Central Scouting: 32 (NA skaters)
Numbers are one thing, but why is a high school prospect ranked as a second-rounder by scouting services?
Watching O'Brien, it's clear that he didn't belong with the players that surrounded him this year. He oozes skill and is a very good stickhandler capable of multiple different moves to make defenders miss. He has his head up at all times while shuffling the puck, looking for plays to set up great scoring chances for teammates.
He attracts a lot of attention from opposing defences, and has learned to use this to his advantage to get the puck to others in open areas.
But he is primarily a goal-scorer. He has a great wrist shot and is capable of changing the angle of his release to fool netminders, when he is not serving them one of his dangles. O'Brien also routinely goes to prime scoring areas where he can use an effective one-timer.
His skating technique is solid and he uses his acceleration to gain the separation he needs to create scoring chances. He has shown that he has the speed and good edgework that complements his puck-handling ability very well.
The most impressive thing about him is that he is working hard to be dangerous every shift. At the high school level, he is both the most skilled player on the ice and the most heavily checked. It wouldn't be a surprise if there was someone assigned to shut him down on every opposing team he faced this year.
O'Brien has to get creative to shake his coverage as he constantly has other players in his face trying to get him off his game. It was to the point where he was looking forward to his college career to finally get some room to breathe on the ice.
“Going against Michigan State [he traveled to Plymouth, Michigan, for that Dec. 16 game], and then playing against Exeter [Dec. 19], I really felt like I had more time and space against the college team than I did against a prep school team. They’re on me the whole game. I’m getting banged, getting whacked, getting chirped, all that stuff.” — Jay O'Brien, The Patriot Ledger
One of the tactics O'Brien has found to create more offence in this environment is a constant heavy forecheck fueled by his skating ability. He makes a lot of turnovers happen with his back pressure, timely stick lifts, and pass interceptions, and can utilize the chaos it creates in the opposing zone to roam around looking for an opening to slip a shot in.
O'Brien doesn't always show the best awareness in the defensive zone, but his constant work ethic means that he is annoying to deal with for the other team at the other end too. He is good at supporting his defence and can create some fast breakouts with his good vision of the ice.
Jay O'Brien is going to be a hard player to rank for NHL teams as they try to come up with their final list over the next few weeks. I am certain that scouts who have seen him play will battle hard for him, but the level of competition he faced most of the season means that there are some questions that remain unanswered.
How do you compare him to players who spent the year in elite junior leagues around the globe? Was the skill level he displayed just a product of weaker opposition?
What bodes well for O'Brien is that he processes the game quickly and is not one to overdo things too often. This, added to his great hands and motor should have him play in the top of the lineup in Providence next year.
As mentioned above, Donato putting up a similar point total in his high school prep league before making an immediate impact at Harvard University will surely help the case of the top-ranked high-schooler in this year's draft. The Bruins player recorded nine points in 12 games in his debut season.
This is far from a guarantee of success for O'Brien, but history shows that drafting players out of the USHS can turn out well for NHL organizations. There are also other examples out there, like Kevin Hayes drafted 24th overall in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks.
With so many second-round picks, and a third-round pick at #66, the Montreal Canadiens could afford to take a chance on a skilled offensive player like O'Brien, especially if he is viewed internally as a potential centre at the next level.