March 8, 2009
Curious Case of Patrick O'Sullivan

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Though I've frequented Las Vegas both personally and professionally, I'm not much of a gambler.

The table games and games of chance rather bore me and I've always figured that there are better ways to spend the money.

But if I was to drop an Andrew Jackson or two on the roulette wheel or in a slot, there's one guy I wouldn't want sitting next to me; former Los Angeles King and, after a few trade day maneuvers, current Edmonton Oiler Patrick O'Sullivan.

There's an old saying for those less fortunate, "if it weren’t for bad luck, they'd have no luck at all."

For young Mr. O'Sullivan, the twists and turns of professional athletics have entered the fray much sooner than expected.

O'Sullivan's luck, or lack thereof, has been well documented in Canada but has gone with little mention in the lower 48 states.

He had the terrible misfortune to have an abusive father, which was both mental and physical. The situation escalated to such a flashpoint that one night not long after the 2004 World Championships, a fist fight between father and son resulted. Patrick's only option to protect himself was to have a restraining order out against his own flesh and blood. Despite such obstacles, and only because he had a great advocate in his mother, Cathie Martin, did Patrick develop into a star at the junior level. He had the numbers and skills to warrant a first round selection in the NHL draft.

As the days drew closer to the Entry Draft, the clouds started to form around O'Sullivan again. His father, possessing the knowledge that the restraining order could only be enforced in Canada, had every intention of seeing his son be selected among hockey's young elite. When his arrival was eminent, the NHL did what they had to do and assigned two bodyguards to the younger O'Sullivan. The security had to stay around Patrick far longer than anyone expected; he drifted out of the first round and deep into the second round before the Wild selected him. His former coach, the bombastic Don Cherry, went on the record when no NHL team officials would.

"That (the family situation) hurt him because he had the numbers," Cherry said. "He should have been a first rounder all the way. So a general manager would look at him and say... 'Don't want the problem.' "

But Patrick went on to embody the word "perseverance" with his performance in the AHL after signing an entry-level contract. He had a huge first year for the Houston Aeros in the AHL, a 93-point season begat a Rookie of the Year award and there wasn’t a brighter star in the Wild system than O'Sullivan. But then that luck took hold of him again.

Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough, thinking that his team needed more veteran scoring, opted to trade O'Sullivan and a first round pick to the Los Angeles Kings for established scorer Pavol Demitra; a smart move for the Wild but not so good for young O'Sullivan.

While the Wild have been a perennial playoff team, Patrick arrived on the shores of the Pacific to play for a team that was nose-diving towards a rebuilding scenario. Last season was the culmination, a 71 point, 29th place overall finish but once again, he refused to let a bad situation and an overbearing male figure (in this case, former Kings mentor Marc Crawford, who was much more suited to steward veteran talent) keep him down. He carved out a solid first full NHL season, scoring 22 goals and 53 points, was one of the better defensive players on the roster and possessed one of the hardest shots on the team.

"I like that O'Sullivan; he's got a wicked shot and plays with a mean streak. I'd love to have him on our team," was an unsolicited analysis by one Atlantic Division scout when chatting about the Kings a few weeks ago.

With Kings GM Dean Lombardi selling to ownership that the only way was to build through wise drafting and player development, it looked like O'Sullivan was finally set up to win.

From all appearances, he was one of the crown jewels of the franchise along with the like of Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, who would bring this franchise into serious contention for a Stanley Cup, something that’s never appeared in the City of Angels. In addition to his dynamic on ice game, he was well liked among the Kings' faithful as witness by the amount of "12 O'Sullivan" jerseys in the stands most nights at Staples center.

But then that luck again... this time brought on by some poor off-ice judgment; probably a move O'Sullivan would never make on the ice.

At the end of the 2007-08 season, Patrick's original rookie contract expired and with little leverage (unrestricted free agency would have to wait until end of his next deal), it was assumed that O'Sullivan would sign another deal that would insure he'd be with the team until the end of the decade.

Not quite.

Under the advisement of agent Pat Morris, Patrick decided to holdout of the beginning of training camp, a rarity in theses of salary caps and arbitration. If it was a team with a more settled situation and a player with a greater body of work, maybe such a ploy would have paid dividends. In this case, Terry Murray replaced Crawford as the Kings coach over the summer and had never seen O'Sullivan on the ice.

Murray correctly theorized in the early days of camp, "I don't know what I'm missing if I've never seen the player play," using logic that no one could fault.

So while Patrick remained in Canada awaiting word, Murray was trying to jigsaw line combinations together, a practice that affected O'Sullivan the most among the team’s top six forwards during the first half of the season.

As it turned out, GM Lombardi lurking in his office probably never let the holdout go. Although he bounced from line to line as Murray tried to find his way, Patrick put together a representative season for a team in transition. While he'll fall a bit short of his production level of last season, he's showed once more than he's a two way player; he was one of only a few forwards on the roster with a "+" in front of his plus/minus rating.

Operative word: Was.

In one of the most curious trades of this or any NHL deadline day, Lombardi quizzically shipped O'Sullivan and a 2nd round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for former All-Star Justin Williams.

The move was curious due to the fact that at the time of the trade Williams was sidelined with a broken hand, causing him to miss the last eight matches for Carolina. The deal grew more curious because in the 32 games he did play in, Williams managed only 3 goals, not exactly the type of production a team that struggles to score every night needs.

The probable explanation for the lack of production makes this even more curious, it seems he missed the first 25 games of the season with an Achilles tendon injury. The cherry on top of the sundae is the lists of injuries Williams has incurred since making his NHL debut. In order, a broken finger, sprained right shoulder, strained left shoulder, sprained left knee, broken left wrist, bruised ankle and the jackpot winner, a torn ACL.

You don't have to be a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to deem this player injury prone, do you?

Now the Kings will tell you they know this Williams guy. Their GM, assistant GM (Ron Hextall) and head coach were all in Philadelphia when he was drafted in the first round back in 2000. They know what the other 28 GMs don't know, that once Williams heals, he's a big time scorer, basing that hope on two seasons in Carolina, although one season he put up a poor -11 rating while scoring 33 goals.

If I'm a Kings fan, I'm wringing my hands because the last time Lombardi and Company took a flier on an oft injured player, it was Michal Handzus who has crawled back to respectability but still doesn't justify his $4 million a year paycheck... and going further back, one can reference Alyn McCauley and Dan Cloutier. In those cases, Lombardi knew McCauley from San Jose and Cloutier was Crawford's goalie but neither manager knew the player's situation as well as they should have.

What strikes me as the final curiosity in this case is the timing of the deal. None of the other 25 teams still believing they have a shot at the post season would take an active player off their roster for a broken handed three goal scorer, so it's unlikely Carolina GM Jim Rutherford rustled up a market for Williams. If the player was there for the taking, why not make the deal at the draft table in June and get 20 game of productivity from O'Sullivan and why throw in a 2nd round pick? Rather than dealing a healthy productive player off your NHL roster, why not throw Rutherford a pick and another conditional one if he hits certain benchmark?

The Kings are deep in talent throughout the organization due to wise drafting and our thinking is that pick could have been used for a scorer in the upcoming draft or could have yielded additional NHL level talent.

The reality is that Williams may never return to his 30 goal scoring days, now two full seasons removed. Moreover, the Kings fan base, which bought into the rebuild because they could see the young talent develop before their eyes this season, now has a bitter taste in their mouths as the Kings has skidded to the brink of to the point of elimination from post season contention. Many of the Kings fans probably feel the same way as one message board responder: "I am a firm believer in the Kings' 100-year plan, though."

That may the biggest liability in this tale, a deal such as this can reverse all the currency built up with the season ticket holder base this season.

Lombardi responded in the Los Angeles Daily News by saying: "It was about getting the guy. He's a proven 30-goal scorer and only 27 years old. He is arguably just entering his prime. He's really competitive. We know him intimately from Philadelphia. We didn't want to trade him when we were there, but he was part of the [Danny] Markov deal. He's a really smart player. Those are the two things that jump out at you, right from his draft year through on. He's really smart and really competitive.

"The difference, too, when you look at this guy and his numbers, when he's healthy, is that he did it on a Stanley Cup winner. He brings a ring and he's only 27 years old. The other thing is, he makes us bigger on the wings. He's not a 6-4 guy, but that's a major issue for our team. We go and face a team like San Jose, and we're very small on the wings. We've got to continue to address that. He helps that. We're not done there, but it is an issue and he helps address that."

He responded to O'Sullivan's tenure by remarking, "the front end (forward line combinations), you look at it and it's just not in sync. So that was what we spent the whole trade deadline looking at, is for players who fit in your top six, and then how that fits with your seven through nine. We sort of like certain combinations. Wayne Simmonds seems to go with Handzus. [Jarret] Stoll and Brown have kind of hit it off a little bit, but do we really have that right guy with Anze Kopitar? And does that depend on where [Alexander] Frolov is? This is what I'm talking about with Williams too.

"With Williams' game, he's a really smart player. He can do a lot of things for you and, again, he has proven he can play in the playoffs. I think he's a better fit for us. Now, would I have done this if Justin Williams was 31 years old, or a rental player? No. That was the other thing I was looking at the deadline. We weren't looking at any rentals. Anybody we were going to get, it had to be somebody who fits with us next year and the year after. So this was a good fit, on all accounts. He's signed, he's bigger, he's more experienced but still only 27 years old, and I think he's a better fit in our top six. Again, that's not taking anything away from Patrick, but I think there is a little bit of...where exactly does he fit with the guys we were going with? He would probably still be a player with upside. I think he has showed a lot of upside in his last 24 months. Now there's another step that needs to be taken. But with the opportunity to get a guy like this (Williams), we felt that this works for us now and down the road. With the injury, it's tough, but we do have Oscar Moller, so we're going to keep him. I'm OK with Oscar holding the fort for now, and then Justin comes in when he's ready.''

Hmm, a lot of talking but not much problem solving; considering the equally curious move of acquiring another right winger when the team is dying for some help on the left side.

Reaction among others was mixed; Dave Joseph, ESPN710 Los Angeles Sportscenter anchor, thinks it's a gamble but sees the logic in the deal.

"I don't think it's a bad move for the Kings, I'm not knocking O'Sullivan skills, he's a true goal scorer, I think that Williams is a more proven guy and will bring leadership to the dressing room," Joseph said. "Give him time to get healthy and Justin is a 25 goal scorer. With the Wild and now the Kings letting O'Sullivan go, there may be something there that the public doesn't know about. I know he's had a tough time and with all the youth they have here, it appears he was expendable. I think he’ll score a lot of goals in Edmonton."

A member of the Kings' organization concurred about Williams' leadership ability but cautioned that it's not a sure thing.

"From all reports I hear, his teammates are going to love him," he said. "Another issue is that you're going from someone who can help you now versus someone that can help you in the future. As far as injuries, a broken hand is really no big thing, it's just a bone injury, and I'd be far more concerned about that Achilles injury."

The momentary irony for O'Sullivan was that he was slotted to play near his birthplace of Winston Salem, NC but as we've documented, that luck was to turn in just minutes following his removal from the Los Angeles roster.

In the hopes of re-capturing lighting in bottle like Lombardi hopes to do with Williams, Carolina's Rutherford spun O'Sullivan to Edmonton for the once and future Cane, Erik Cole.

Now Patrick will get to skate on that lovely sheet on ice at Northlands Coliseum for 41 games a year and play an up tempo game for 82. It's likely he'll move back to his old position, center, and when he turns to his side, he just may see a talent like Ales Hemsky waiting for a pass. For a guy that's had little luck in his life, maybe the Curious Case of Patrick O'Sullivan won’t have such an unlucky ending.

DEADLINE DAY BLOWBACK

The O'Sullivan case notwithstanding, there were definitive winners and losers in the final hour of frenzy as contenders and pretenders exercised their best asset management to get to the second season. We'll throw in our three cents on the major players:

Calgary – As stated on The Fourth Period radio show Wednesday afternoon, the sound you now hear is San Jose and Detroit not being nervous. Though the acquisition of Olli Jokinen was the biggest name moved (a statement in its own right), it doesn't make the Flames any more dangerous than they were on Tuesday.

They now have three solid second line centers if you include Daymond Langkow and Craig Conroy but lack a game changer in the pivot. Add to the fact that Jokinen holds the record for the most games played without appearing in a playoff match and you’ll see why we think that the Flames will regret shipping away Matthew Lombardi AND a first round pick to get him.

Rangers – Glen Sather's exercise in rotisserie style GM management continues. He got some badly needed puck moving talent in Derek Morris and backed that up with major softness with Nik Antropov, who they need to sign in the off season to make the dealing of a 2nd round pick and conditional a total waste of time.

Add Sean Avery's distracting ways to the mix and it's impossible for new coach John Tortorella to create chemistry in the final 20 matches. If they are fortunate enough to squeak into the eighth spot in the easy, they're an easy first round elimination against the Bruins. What a mess.

San Jose – GM Doug Wilson's deal with Anaheim signals one thing, he knows he doesn't have enough experienced playoff performers in the room to win sixteen post season games. Both Kent Huskins and Travis Moen continue the theme started by the signing of Claude Lemieux and with Jeremy Roenick's status unsure, Moen is a young and frankly better option on the third or fourth line.

Boston – Old sports proverb: "Sometimes the best trades are the ones you never make." So while you had reports of Pronger coming in and Kessel going away, the biggest deal was the acquisition of Steve Montador from the sell, sell, sell Ducks. Frankly, the Bruins picked the wrong time to hit a rut, a mini-losing streak combined the Devils bringing major heat created a lot of rumors (and nothing more) as the deadline approaches. With all their major parts intact, no major moves were the best moves, some other media outlets should check their sources better next time.

Anaheim – Had they known that so many parts around them would be dealt away, maybe Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer would have been asked to be shipped out on that same bus. To subtract that many solid citizens off this team makes it impossible for them to make a serious run, especially the solid checking line pivot, Sami Pahlsson, one of the most underrated contributors to the franchise’s recent success. At least they got a young defenseman back in James Wisnewski but Ducks' fans know it's back to the drawing board after winning the Cup two years ago.

Philadelphia – Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki in net gonna win you the Cup? Next question. And what exactly did Scottie Upshall do to get moved off this team for an enforcer who won't get any ice time in the playoffs?

Detroit – When reached for comment, the Detroit locker room responded, "Watch us with Ozzie and Ty."

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The 4th Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com.
 
  Archives:
Feb. 25, 2009 The Flock no Longer Reins in So. Cal
Jan. 29, 2009 Can't Stop the Brawling
Jan. 07, 2009 Phoenix to Ashes
Dec. 19, 2008 Don't Get Me Started!
Dec. 04, 2008 An American in the Prairies
Nov. 22, 2008 Maybe the Q is part of the A
Nov. 01, 2008 The Plot Thickens
Oct. 27, 2008 Pinging Away
Oct. 16, 2008 West Coast Bias
Sept. 30, 2008 Life is a Spectrum
Sept. 26, 2008 My kind of town
Sept. 10, 2008 Say it ain't so, Joe


 

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