LOS ANGELES — Despite finishing the 2007-08 season 29th in the thirty-team National Hockey League, the Los Angeles Kings are optimistic about their future, and one reason for that optimism comes from a rather unexpected source.
Indeed, no one in their right mind thought that a 5-11, 190-pound winger with some offensive talent but had little in terms of a defensive game would be a major player in the Kings’ future, at least, not in the near future.
But second-year left wing Patrick O’Sullivan turned a lot of heads and left some jaws agape this season by scoring 22 goals with 31 assists for 53 points in 82 games as well as contributing far more on the defensive end than anyone expected.
To be sure, O’Sullivan was not known for his defensive play when he began the 2006-07 season with the Kings. Always a big-time scorer in the Ontario Hockey League and later in the American Hockey League, he scored 47 goals and added 46 assists for 93 points in 78 games with the Houston Aeros in the 2005-06 season.
With the Kings, O’Sullivan found himself in unfamiliar territory, as his defensive play and his play without the puck was lacking, to say the least, and as a result, he did not last long at the NHL level.
O’Sullivan was assigned to the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate, to work on his game, and while many young, highly-touted prospects react poorly to being sent down to the minors, O’Sullivan did not sulk. Instead, he put his nose to the grindstone and worked hard, scoring 18 goals and contributing 21 assists for 39 points in 41 games.
On January 25, O’Sullivan was recalled by the Kings, and it appeared that he got the message, as the new Patrick O’Sullivan was effective with and without the puck. He displayed a hard-nosed work ethic in battles along the boards and in the corners, and he was far more dangerous in the offensive zone.
O’Sullivan acknowledged that being sent to Manchester helped his game tremendously.
“Since I came back from my stint in Manchester, I feel a lot more comfortable on the ice,” O’Sullivan said at the time. “I’m certainly playing a lot more and I’m starting to get some points.”
“As the second half went on, I started killing penalties and playing in big, important situations,” O’Sullivan added. “That really got to me. I said to myself, ‘I can play at this level. I can make plays and do the things that I’ve been able to do at every other level.’ To realize that is pretty cool. It’s definitely something I’ve tried to build on.”
But O’Sullivan knew that he had to do more to improve his game, and last summer, he spent a lot of time in the weight room and even participated in the Kings Development Camp, which he was not required to do.
The off-season work paid off in spades, as the sophomore winger came back as very different player.
“I’ve got confidence, I know I can play in this league,” O’Sullivan explained. “That’s half the battle, knowing that you’re able to do it. For a young player, that’s a big step. To get the experience last year was good for me. I also worked hard this past summer. I got into better shape than I was before and I’m starting to feel that.”
“I feel faster, and I feel a little quicker on the ice,” O’Sullivan elaborated. “It’s from some of the training I did over the summer. The team wanted me to work on my conditioning, and I came to camp in a lot better shape than I did last year. I feel it on the ice.”
Despite his size, O’Sullivan has learned how to use his body effectively and he won more than his share of physical battles this season.
“I’m not the biggest guy, but I got stronger and definitely a lot faster,” he said. “The skating improvement has really helped me.”
“He’s still growing up, he’s gaining experience,” said Kings forward Michael Cammalleri. “There’s a big difference from when you’re a rookie. You’re just getting used to the NHL, the best league in the world. Now he knows what it’s like and he’s just getting stronger.”
O’Sullivan started the 2007-08 season in almost strictly a defensive role, playing on the third line and killing penalties. But he played so well—a big surprise, even for the Kings—that before anyone knew it, he found himself playing on the first and second lines and getting time on the power play—he found himself playing in all situations.
To be sure, no one was doubting O’Sullivan anymore.
“It feels really good,” said O’Sullivan, who received the team award for Best Defensive Player. “Any time you have people doubting you, and that was happening last year because it didn’t go as planned for me, but to prove to the organization what I was able to do and more importantly, prove to myself because I always knew what I was capable of doing.”
“To be doubted—that’s happened to me in the past,” added O’Sullivan. “I knew how to handle it, I knew what I had to do to have a successful year. I wasn’t playing much at the beginning. It took me twenty games to get myself a chance to start playing a little more and playing in more offensive situations. Once that happened, it kind of took off.”
“I’m happy that I did it the right way and that I’ve earned everything I’ve got.”
Although no one would categorize him as one of the NHL’s top forwards, O’Sullivan has become a complete player who can be an impact player with or without the puck and in all three zones.
O’Sullivan said that as a young player, he had to learn how to play at the NHL level.
“Until you see something, you don’t really know,” he explained. “You can have people tell you, but until I got here, you don’t know how good the guys are and what it takes to be at your highest level every night. That was the key for me—seeing how it is, getting to know the guys and seeing what it took, not only on the ice, but off the ice, to be the best player you can be.”
“Seeing that and learning from guys is what really helped me and then being committed to follow through and do what I had to do to give myself a chance to have a good year.”
O’Sullivan learned that the intensity and dedication needed at the NHL level requires a quantum leap from what a player can get by with at the lower levels.
“It’s things like one-goal games and that one mistake can cost you a game,” said O’Sullivan. “It’s really hard to be a young player in this league because there are no nights off.”
Without question, O’Sullivan had a breakout season in 2007-08—a bright spot in an otherwise disastrous season for the Kings.
“It’s tough being done,” said O’Sullivan. “Obviously, our team didn’t have a great season and that’s the most important thing. But it was good for me, personally, to have a breakout year and show everyone what I’m capable of doing.”
Despite the fact that the Kings had yet another poor season, like the rest of his teammates, O’Sullivan is optimistic about their future.
“It’s exciting to be on a team with so many good, young players and such a bright future,” he said. “I think the team’s going to have a much more successful year next year. A lot of the pieces are starting to come together and guys are figuring out what they have to do. After everyone has a good summer, I’m excited for next year.”
“The way our team played the second half and more importantly, the core group of young guys that we have, is more experienced and learned a lot of valuable lessons,” he added. “We played in some difficult games and the team had an up-and-down season. All that stuff is something you can learn from. Just the fact that we’ve had two difficult years is really a lot of motivation for us to have a good year next year.”
O’Sullivan said that the Kings’ struggles can be turned into a positive down the road.
“I think it’s the difficult situations we’ve been through that’s going to help us grow,” said O’Sullivan. “When you have tough times you can learn from that and take everything you get from that and try not to have to experience any of that again.”
Even though the Kings’ season is over, O’Sullivan’s season is not, as he will join Kings right wing Dustin Brown in representing the United States in the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship tournament, May 2-18, 2008 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Quebec City, Quebec.
After that, O’Sullivan, who will become a restricted free agent on July 1, will begin training for the 2008-09 NHL season, and he will do what worked so well for him last summer—work on his conditioning.
“Absolutely, it’s something you have to do every summer,” O’Sullivan stressed. “I want to continue to improve. I think I can get a lot better in lots of areas. It’s exciting. I’ll take some time off, although I’m going to the World Championships in a couple of weeks, so that’ll be fun.”
“Unfortunately, summer’s going to be a lot longer this year. But that’ll give me more time to work out.”
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