The Carolina Hurricanes added another talented member Friday to their extremely competitive upcoming training camp battle for the two remaining center positions.
The team signed 25-year-old center Patrick O'Sullivan to a one-year, two-way contract. The deal will pay him $600,000 at the NHL level and just over $100,000 at the AHL level.
While Carolina General Manager Jim Rutherford indicated that O'Sullivan "has the ability to reach [the 20-goal mark] again", O'Sullivan will enter training camp next week as just another face in a talented group of prospects fighting for the position, including newly-acquired Jon Matsumoto, and Riley Nash, seventh-overall draft pick Jeff Skinner, 2009 injury fill-in Patrick Dwyer, and AHL "veteran" Zac Dalpe.
O'Sullivan will certainly have no guarantees of a spot. However, all the facts are pointed in the right direction for his chances not only to make the team but to truly legitimize the Hurricanes' final group of centers, already anchored by Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter.
First of all, out of the possible prospects that could fill the third and fourth-line positions, only Patrick Dwyer has more than five games of NHL experience under his belt. Additionally, while he may have 71 appearances-worth of experience, his performance was simply mediocre (13 points, minus-5 rating) in those games.
On the other side, O'Sullivan has 281 games already in hand and a relatively good statistical resume to go along with it.
After scoring 19 points in 44 games for Los Angeles in 2006-2007, his first full season in '07-'08 was a spectacular one for O'Sullivan, as he totaled 22 goals, including three shorthanded and 53 points in a full 82 games while playing with the last-place Kings. His point total was good enough for fourth on the team.
The first impression was also enough for O'Sullivan to earn a spot on the United States teams in the Ice Hockey World Championships, where he had six points in seven games.
Unfortunately, the next season saw a slight decline for O'Sullivan. He continued on the same pace until the trade deadline, where he found himself with 37 points (14 goals) and a plus-one rating through 62 games played. However, following his trade to Edmonton (the same one that brought Erik Cole back to Carolina and sent Justin Williams to Los Angeles), his production dropped to just six points and a minus-seven rating in 19 games.
This past year, conversely, O'Sullivan took a major plunge into the cellar of the NHL. Sure, his bad luck continued (once again, only this time with Edmonton, his team finished in last place), although the 34 points in 73 games wasn't awful, his shooting percentage dropped to a wasteful 5.4 and his cringe-enducing minus-35 rating was by far the worst in the league.
O'Sullivan's struggles were enough for Edmonton to buy out his contract, which would've charged the Oilers a $2.925 million cap hit next season, with one year remaining. O'Sullivan stayed out of work for over three and half months until today's signing.
Thankfully, though, he is taking a major pay cut. O'Sullivan is no longer regarded as a great up-and-coming player and former second-round pick, and the Hurricanes may just have found a diamond in the rough. The expectations have dissipated for him, and O'Sullivan can begin training camp with a new mindset and a new team, in addition to the value of three seasons of experience to build on.
A second reason for O'Sullivan's potential dividends lie in his childhood, as the North Carolina native spent the first eight years of his life within two hours of Raleigh. Until today, O'Sullivan had only played in the system of three western franchises (Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Edmonton), and perhaps a return to the East Coast will create a more comfortable environment.
A similar trend has certainly become common for the Hurricanes even with players not born in the region. Quite a few of the 'Canes current one-way contract holders, such as Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, Jussi Jokinen, and Joni Pitkanen, once had careers given up for dead by other teams.
O'Sullivan could also benefit from the fact that he's now with a better team than he's ever played for, although Carolina is certainly no dynasty. The Oilers won the Western Conference in 2006-2007, and the Kings recorded 101 points this past season, but O'Sullivan has been with both teams during the wrong time.
Playing with other young teammates and a few more superstars, as well, could give an unexpected boost to his play.
With these encouraging factors in mind, it is truly possible that O'Sullivan can fill the "missing piece" role in the Hurricanes lower lines, who struggled to score last season.
If O'Sullivan does indeed begin the season as the No. 3 center, general estimates could predict a slight rebound season, projecting him to finish in the 40-45 point range with a push towards 20 goals likely.
However, he has the capabilities to go even farther than that. A career breakthrough 65-70 point season is within his grasp, and if the 'Canes can cater towards his skills, they could use him along with Staal and Sutter to create one of the best one-two-three center punches in the league.
And, even if O'Sullivan doesn't burst out for a career-best season, he can always be counted on to be a solid weapon in shootouts.
For the Hurricanes, who scored on only nine of 31 shootout attempts last season, 21st in the NHL, a major debate was who the third player would be to complement Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu during the shootouts. O'Sullivan can easily fill that role, as he's also done for both Edmonton and Los Angeles.
He has 12 goals in his 29 career attempts and was 4-for-11 last year, a respectable percentage to say the least.
In more than a few ways, O'Sullivan has proven in short periods before that he has the talent to become a household name in the world of hockey, and his new contract with Carolina gives him a great opportunity to showcase that for a small price to the team.
Whether it's on the ice or in a shootout, Patrick O'Sullivan's signing could pay huge dividends for the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010-2011.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his two years so far with the site, he has written over 225 articles and received over 195,000 total reads.
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