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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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With similar roots, former Flyer Tony Amonte and Jay O'Brien have a new connection

With similar roots, former Flyer Tony Amonte and Jay O'Brien have a new connection

Tony Amonte knew of Jay O'Brien.

The two hail from Hingham, Massachusetts, a town roughly 15 miles south of Boston right off the harbor. Amonte's sons Ty and Tristan both play hockey and are close to the same age as the 18-year-old O'Brien; Ty is 20, while Tristan is 18 and about three months younger. All three are now good friends.

"So I saw Jay around quite a bit," Amonte said.

What did he first see?

"Knew he was going to be a pretty special player," he said.

No small compliment coming from a five-time NHL All-Star with 900 career points (416 goals, 484 assists) to his name. 

Amonte has witnessed his impression bear fruit. The former Flyer coached O'Brien at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, where Amonte also went to school. O'Brien played for Amonte before enrolling at Thayer. It was a split-season league prior to high school and O'Brien's potential was evident.

"During that split season, he had an opportunity to play with a couple of older guys and you could tell right there, how hungry he was and how talented he was," Amonte said in a phone interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia last week. "The rest was just up to him if he could continue to work and do what he needed to do on and off the ice, that he was going to be a successful kid and a big-time player at some point."

That point took a step this summer when O'Brien's story drew another connection to Amonte. The speedy center was drafted 19th overall by the Flyers, the team his head coach played for from 2002-04 and helped reach the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, where it lost to the Lightning in seven games.

When the Flyers called O'Brien's name, Amonte didn't have much to say about the organization.

"He texted me and said, 'That was incredible,'" O'Brien recalled.

Amonte believes the franchise will speak for itself.

"I loved playing there. It was one of the best organizations I played for," Amonte said. "Mr. (Ed) Snider spared no expense for the team. Whatever you asked them for, they gave you, they were there. It's a fun place to play. Of all the places I've played, that was fun. 

"It was a great time because we were winning, as well, had some good teams. It is a fun city to play in. One of the better organization's in the league, in my opinion."

O'Brien got to feel it at development camp in late June, early July, when he showed why the Flyers drafted him earlier than many anticipated. The 5-foot-11, 176-pounder becomes a force when he accelerates and is scary with the puck on his stick. There's a reason why he went off for 43 goals and 80 points in 30 games with the Tigers last season, which has Providence College excited for his game this fall.

"When he gets an opportunity to score, he puts it in the back of the net — there's no question," Amonte said. "That's exactly how it was when he played for me. It was quite amazing, the kid was in all alone, he scores. He makes it happen. To have a clutch goal scorer like that is just huge. 

"That was the first thing I really noticed about him — other than his grit and just how hard he played and how much he wanted it. That innate ability to get in on the goalie all alone and be able to make it happen."

Don't think just flashy goal scorer, either.

"I love his grit to go along with goal scoring," Amonte said. "He's really got a lot of grit and a lot of sandpaper to his game. And I think that's the Philly way. Obviously being a Flyer and having played there, it's all about heart and passion and how hard you go and I think he fits that mold.

"Being drafted as high as he was, it's a testament to staying the course and just doing what he needed to do and going out there and proving he was the best player in New England."

The Flyers were questioned a bit for possibly reaching with their pick of O'Brien. Quite frankly, though, general manager Ron Hextall and his scouting staff didn't give a damn about pre-draft rankings when taking O'Brien at No. 19 over other centers such as Joseph Veleno, Rasmus Kupari and Isac Lundestrom.

It's fitting that those ratings didn't mean much to the player the Flyers were so-called gambling on with their second selection of the first round.

"I don't even know where I was," O'Brien said. "But I didn't really pay attention to it. … It's not really where you get drafted, it's what you do after you get drafted."

Amonte said the Flyers didn't touch base much during the season but were at many of Thayer's games in the winter, while O'Brien was aware of the team's interest.

"I talked to them at kind of the midpoint of the year and then at the combine," O'Brien said. "I knew it was a possibility, I knew they liked me and I liked them a lot. When their pick was up, I was kind of crossing my fingers. You can't tell because anything can happen at the draft, but we built a good relationship with the staff and I couldn't be happier to be here."

And if he needs some help, O'Brien knows a guy.

"I just always loved him, he's so passionate, he's very competitive, real competitive guy," O'Brien said of Amonte. "Doesn't say much off the ice, just keeps it short and sweet and then on the ice, little pointers here and there. It's pretty easy to listen to a guy like that who has been through it, has had so much success in the NHL. 

"It was a blast, he was a big part of my success and we're going to keep in touch the rest of my life."

Down the line, O'Brien will have Amonte coming back to Philadelphia. After a game, a handshake and hug will be in store for the boys from Hingham.

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