WILMINGTON — The first defenseman the Bruins drafted in 2011 has already appeared in 178 NHL games. As a rookie, he played in the Bruins’ Game 7 come-from-behind win over Toronto in the first round of the 2012-13 playoffs. He spent enough time in the organization to determine he would be happier elsewhere.
The second defenseman the Bruins drafted in 2011 has yet to play in an NHL game. The earliest he will make his NHL debut is sometime in 2016-17, if all goes according to plan.
In terms of development, Dougie Hamilton, the No. 9 pick in 2011, is the exception. Rob O’Gara, the 151st overall pick, is the rule.
Drafting and developing teenagers into NHL players takes time, a commodity that is not found in abundance around the league. Peter Chiarelli and Wayne Smith, the general manager and director of amateur scouting when O’Gara was drafted, have since been fired. Hamilton, Ryan Button, Craig Cunningham, Justin Florek, Jared Knight, Michael Hutchinson, and Lars Volden, O’Gara’s fellow picks and campers, are no longer with the team.
The length of O’Gara’s development illustrates how long it can take for a draft pick to make an NHL impact. The process is the league’s equivalent of making an aircraft carrier move in the other direction. Accelerating development is not recommended.
But O’Gara’s path also shows how a long-term project could develop into a four-bagger.
In 2014-15, O’Gara had six goals and 15 assists in 33 games for Yale. He was a first-team All-American. He was named the ECAC’s Best Defensive Defenseman. The 6-foot-4-inch, 212-pound O’Gara will enter 2015-16 as one of college hockey’s top shutdown defensemen.
He is a good skater. The left-shot O’Gara extends his perimeter with his stick and reach. When puck carriers approach, O’Gara is prompt to gap up and close on trespassers.
Once he hits his optimal peak weight of 220 pounds and gains more experience, O’Gara could become a trusted five-on-five and penalty-killing NHL defenseman.
“It’s tough on a forward with a guy that big and a reach like that,” said development coach Jay Pandolfo. “He can skate because he can close on you so quickly and shut down any space.”
To the amateur eye, none of this would have been imaginable during O’Gara’s draft-year viewings. He looked more like a fawn on skates than a future NHLer.
This week, O’Gara is participating in his fifth development camp at Ristuccia Arena. Each camp, along with his senior season at Milton Academy and three years at Yale, has been critical in O’Gara’s literal growth as a hockey player. He arrived in Wilmington with arms and legs like angel hair. In the NHL, limbs skinnier than penne are health hazards.
“I was skinny. I was raw,” O’Gara recalled with a laugh. “I wasn’t as strong, I wasn’t as fast, I wasn’t as big.”
Where others saw a stick insect, the Bruins spotted potential. GM Don Sweeney, the team’s assistant GM and director of player development at the time, compared O’Gara to a piece of clay, ready to be molded into any shape his future employer desired.
They were right. At Yale, under the watch of Keith Allain, O’Gara has grown into an elite NCAA defenseman. He takes on the hardest assignments. Defensively, Allain preaches aggressive, tight play. Yale doesn’t sit back and allow opponents to set the offensive pace. O’Gara and his teammates are taught to close down opportunities before they develop into scoring chances.
Away from New Haven, O’Gara trains at Sports and Fitness Performance in Islip, N.Y. O’Gara once ate anything to put on weight. Now, he practically sighs when he mentions the empty calories of Skippy-slathered white bread sandwiches he used to tuck away as a Yale freshman. His diet (six meals daily) is heavy on lean meat, vegetables, eggs, fruit, yogurt, and post-workout smoothies.
Eating and training right hasn’t just made him a bigger, stronger, and faster player. He’s more confident when he enters battle situations.
“I feel faster. I feel more explosive,” O’Gara said. “You can go in with more confidence, knowing you’ve put the work in and you’ve done this a million times before. Having that mind-set can raise your game another level. Last year, I felt the best I’ve ever felt in hockey.”
O’Gara, 22, is only 19 days younger than Hamilton. In 2015-16, Hamilton will start the first season of his six-year, $34.5 million second contract, with the Flames. O’Gara will be a senior at Yale, where he is studying economics.
Hamilton only needed a year-and-a-half of additional prep work in Niagara after he was drafted to enter the NHL. O’Gara would not have succeeded had he tried to follow Hamilton’s growth curve. There are still things he needs to work on before he starts collecting a pro paycheck.
“Putting on the right weight and becoming more imposing,” O’Gara said of his goals before turning pro. “The height is a blessing. I’m lucky to have that. But it’s being strong and being a guy that’s solid all over the ice. That’s something that just needs to be a focus. If I continue that next year, hopefully it will benefit me in the future.”
O’Gara is almost ready. By the time he leaves Yale, it shouldn’t take long for him to knock on the NHL door. The Bruins are waiting.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.