Patrick O’Sullivan has not had a good season. His minus-28 rating is one back of teammate Shawn Horcoff for worst plus/minus in the entire NHL. He’s on pace to score just 14 goals, a decline from 16 last year and 22 the year before. The 41 points he is on pace for would represent his lowest offensive output since his rookie year. The numbers are very bad, and this is a situation where the hatred of many goes well beyond the numbers: ever since analyst Mike Milbury critiqued him for slowing down to avoid a hit on Hockey Night in Canada, O’Sullivan’s gained a reputation as a coward, and that’s the kind of reputation that can get a player run out of town in a hurry.
Despite that rather daunting pile of negativity, O’Sullivan ranks ninth on Copper & Blue’s Top 25 under 25 list (and yes, we know his birth date but when we started he qualified). Why? All will be explained, after the jump.
The short answer to the question posed above is that one member of the selection panel was feeling bright and sunny about O’Sullivan. That member was me, and I’ve been afforded this opportunity to explain why I feel O’Sullivan deserves such a high ranking.
As with my Gilbert Brule piece yesterday, I’d like to start by presenting O’Sullivan’s historical offensive numbers, all projected to an 82 game NHL schedule using Gabriel Desjardins’ equivalency numbers. I’ve started in O’Sullivan’s draft year, 2002-03.
O'Sullivan's junior numbers were excellent, and as an AHL rookie, O'Sullivan cracked the 90-point barrier (the last Oilers prospect to crack the 90-point barrier in the AHL was 22 year-old Rem Murray in 1995-96). His offensive potential remains undeniable, and given that he's the team's fourth-leading scorer and considered a huge disappointment, we could perhaps even make a case that the word 'potential' should be replaced with 'ability'.
And that's what it comes down to, really: ability.
There are other arguments I could make. I think O'Sullivan's reputation for chicken play is overstated - in one of the Oilers' last games before the break, for example, I saw him take the puck, look up and identify Paul Bissonnette charging in on him, and then calmly move the puck and take the hit. I could appeal to emotion; I know I've pulled for O'Sullivan since I first heard about his personal life. I could argue that the character he's shown in making it to the NHL despite personal adversity is a big mark in his favour. Perhaps most convincingly, I could point to his on-ice shooting and save percentages: the single biggest reason for O'Sullivan's lousy plus/minus is his 95.5 PDO rating, something he has very little control over (being just one of 12 players influencing it at any given time). Of NHL forwards last year who played 40 games and averaged 10:00 of even-strength ice-time, just three had a worse rating than that.
Those arguments all have varying degrees of merit; personally the only one I'd put much faith in when it comes to evaluating the player is the last point. But I do put a lot of faith in O'Sullivan's resume. He was a high-end offensive player every year in junior, and a guy who scored in the playoffs too. He was a high-end scorer in the AHL, and had an impressive playoff run there as well. He's already shown useful levels of offence at the NHL level - even this year his contributions in that area are not insignificant. He kills penalties and prior to this year didn't have a poor reputation as a defensive forward, especially given his age.
The real question with O'Sullivan is whether he's the player we've seen this season, or the player who put those other seasons together. I'm often critical of players experiencing a good year when their career indicates a lower level of ability, but in this case the situation is reversed: one bad year after an (admittedly still early) career that indicates O'Sullivan is a player. It's possible some other factor has come into play, but we haven't seen evidence of injury and I can't think of another plausible reason for O'Sullivan to drop off the edge permanently at this juncture.
I think he'll rebound, and it's that faith in his established track record that has me still suggesting O'Sullivan is one of the best young players in the Oilers organization.