Nate Leaman

What Flyers prospect Jay O'Brien 'can't wait to prove' has him charging ahead

What Flyers prospect Jay O'Brien 'can't wait to prove' has him charging ahead

Jay O'Brien sat at his locker stall and talked about adversity.

He is only 19 years old and growing up faster than he anticipated.

He wasn't gushing over highlights from his freshman year or discussing a burgeoning career at Providence. He went from scoring 43 goals and 80 points in high school during 2017-18 to just two goals and five points at the Division I level last season.

His plans have changed and so has his hockey career.

"Stepping in from high school into the college level, it's a challenge," Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr said in June. "It's not easy. It doesn't matter how good you are. I think he learned that. It's probably the first time in his career that he went through any adversity at any level. Obviously, he's not happy."

O'Brien is not happy but he's doing something about it. In a way, he's becoming a pro without actually being one just yet. "Adversity" is said often in sports but it's real and O'Brien is facing it as a teenager.

He's starting to embrace it.

"Work on learning from this and how to battle adversity," O'Brien said in June at Flyers development camp. "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."

One of the Flyers' two first-round picks from 2018, O'Brien is no longer at Providence, the school in which he committed to when he was 15 years old. With the Friars, he had setbacks because of upper-body injuries and then never found his scoring touch. O'Brien and his camp decided it was best for the prospect to join the Penticton Vees of the BCHL, a junior A league, in 2019-20.

I'm happy this adversity is happening right now and not too later in my career. You never want a year like that, but in a way, it was helpful for me to light the fire even more. 

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

O'Brien is a nifty playmaker with innate scoring ability. Two of his former coaches — Nate Leaman at Providence and Tony Amonte at Thayer Academy — raved about his skill set. Leaman called O'Brien's hands elite, while Amonte extolled the center's knack for creating and finishing — all reasons why the Flyers' previous regime drafted him 19th overall.

Why didn't those traits translate with the Friars? Injuries played a factor, but O'Brien's size did, too. He's now 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, and still adding muscle, which can improve more than simply being strong on the puck — it can enhance O'Brien's quickness and speed, as well.

"I've gained 13 pounds of weight since the season ended," O'Brien said. "I've put the pedal to the metal and I've been really trying to improve my game.

"Just keep getting stronger off the ice because I learned being an 18-year-old in college, you're playing against 24-year-olds and guys like that. If I want to take my game to the next level, I've got to work even harder off ice — get back to training right, eating right, little things like that that make you a pro and to have success."

(Zack Hill/Philadelphia Flyers)

During this transitional phase, O'Brien has had plenty of people in his corner. From a hockey standpoint, the former Flyer Amonte and agent Matt Keator offer daily support.

"Tony was just saying how it happens to everyone, it's just a bump in the road and it's how you rebound from it," O'Brien said. "My agent, too, was great throughout the whole thing."

But O'Brien also looked within — the year molded him.

"I kind of relied on myself more than anything," he said. "Just try to get mentally stronger."

While O'Brien is vowing to be a different player strength-wise, the ultimate goal is to rediscover his goal-scoring swagger in the BCHL.

"I'm just going to try to get back to the way I was playing, why Philly drafted me," O'Brien said. "Use my speed and my skill and create plays over the ice. Be more creative — I think that was great about Tony, he let me play and be creative and use my skill set, but he harped on the D-zone and things like that. 

"I've always taken pride in playing hard in the D-zone and playing a 200-foot game, I think that's something I've done my whole life. Just continue to play a 200-foot game, use my speed. I think I've got to shoot the puck more. Your chances are limited as you climb the ranks, so maybe be a little more selfish, shoot more and capitalize on opportunities."

The plan is for O'Brien to return to college in 2020-21 and play for Boston University after a season with Penticton. Flyers prospect Joel Farabee, who was drafted five spots ahead of O'Brien, took off with the Terriers in 2018-19, winning national Rookie of the Year and eventually signing his entry-level contract in March.

"I've talked to Joel, we've gotten really close over the last couple of years," O'Brien said. "He had nothing but great things to say, I know a lot of guys at B.U. I went in a couple of times, you want to make sure you're making the right decision this time, right? You don't want to mess around with it, you want to do your due diligence. Talking to guys like Joel and other draft picks that they have, they had nothing but good things to say about it."

O'Brien is from Hingham, Massachusetts, which is right outside of Boston. He is good friends with Amonte's son Ty Amonte, who is a junior on the Terriers and also played for Penticton. On top of that, the play-with-pace O'Brien loved the stylistic fit under head coach Albie O'Connell.

"I wanted to be in Boston, I'm 30 minutes away from Boston — that's a dream, to play for a Boston school," O'Brien said. "I just know so many guys there and they love it, they love the way they play, how Albie lets them play, but they take care of the D-zone. I couldn't be more excited."

(Christina Daly/NBC Sports Philadelphia)

The Flyers believe in O'Brien and have no problem exercising patience with the teenage prospect. General manager Chuck Fletcher and Flahr didn't draft O'Brien, but the Thayer Academy product made believers out of the Flyers' scouting staff.

"He's always been a competitor," Flahr said. "He's got quick hands, he can really shoot it. His skating is going to be good. … In order for him to play against bigger bodies in the NHL, he's going to have to be quick. That's going to be a work in progress.

"He has been training with a group in Boston and from what I saw from the beginning of the year to now, he's made significant strides strength-wise.

"He's a lot more confident, stronger and ready to go."

The adversity has helped.

"I don't think there's any doubt in my mind, I know what I can do, I know why Philly drafted me — they drafted me for a reason, especially in that spot," he said. "Talking to them, there's a little bump in the road — that's life, that's hockey. I'm just happy, I'm looking forward, I'm pumped for next year. 

"Continue to work on my game and go into next season charging."

A different player, taking a different path — and equipped for any roadblocks along the way.

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Why patience is key for potential 'game-breaker' Flyers prospect Jay O'Brien

Why patience is key for potential 'game-breaker' Flyers prospect Jay O'Brien

Providence hockey and the Flyers are on the same page.

Both believe in Jay O'Brien. The two see eye to eye on the shiftiness and burst, the hands that can make the puck go all sorts of ways, the innate goal-scoring ability.

It's why the Friars and Flyers plucked O'Brien out of Thayer Academy, a prep school in Braintree, Massachusetts.

It's also why they're just fine with being patient.

"I think Jay, if he continues to progress, can be a game-breaker for us," Providence head coach Nate Leaman said Monday in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia. "And that's what we're kind of looking for. We want him to continue to grow with the speed and the understanding of the game, but I think with his skill set and his ability, he can be a game-breaker. 

"These guys that come right from high school, it takes time and I know Philly has told us that they understand that also. So it's just for him continuing to grow."

O'Brien, an offensively gifted forward the Flyers selected 19th overall in the 2018 NHL draft, hasn't had the dream start to his collegiate career — and that's OK. He missed six games over the course of October and November because of upper-body injuries and went scoreless in his first eight contests.

Early adversity can derail a freshman season, but that's when O'Brien's background comes into play. Tony Amonte, the former Flyer and current head coach at Thayer Academy, commended O'Brien for his "grit to go along with goal scoring."

The mindset and work ethic were right on par with the skill.

The blend of those characteristics caught Leaman's attention on the recruiting trail.

First impression is that here's a guy that works and he has the skill set. That's what really drew us to him. Jay's skill set is pretty elite, but you see guys out there with real good skill sets but you don't see them work. The one thing that can make Jay special is that he competes and he works.

He's a positive kid. He's a very positive individual and I think he's having a year of learning. I think this is very healthy for everything Jay is going through. He has a great skill set, he's got very good vision, he's got very good hands around the net and in tight situations. His hands in tight situations, in tight around the net, are really elite. 

He's coming from high school hockey. Usually the normal freshman in college hockey, it takes them a good two months to really settle in and unfortunately, Jay missed some of that time with the injuries.

It's clear why Leaman was a major selling point for O'Brien choosing Providence.

"Coach Leaman is unbelievable, I think he's one of the best coaches in college hockey," O'Brien said last summer. "His compete and his want to win and his details are huge. It's a place I wanted to go as soon as I toured there."

Already, the tide is starting to turn for O'Brien, who has two goals and two assists in his last six outings following the eight-game scoreless stretch. Leaman has moved him from center to winger, with the purpose of freeing up O'Brien.

"He's been doing a good job with that," Leaman said. "He plays on the power play and he plays on one of our top lines on the wing.

"It takes time to learn to play at the speed, to play with the lack of space."

Flyers player development coach John Riley and amateur scout Nick Pryor have been at a number of Providence's games.

"I communicate with them regularly also," Leaman said, "and I know they're communicating with Jay."

They're all being patient. O'Brien is, as well. There's too much potential to not believe in the process.

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