LONDON, Ont. — When college free-agent goaltender Matt O’Connor was choosing which organization he wanted to sign with, he could have chosen the Edmonton Oilers or another team that could have given him an NHL opportunity almost immediately.
Instead, O’Connor signed with the Ottawa Senators on the heels of Andrew Hammond’s success and with Craig Anderson well-established as the starter. Robin Lehner was even still around when the Boston University product picked Ottawa because “it seemed like the right fit.”
Zach Fucale didn’t have that choice, as the Montreal Canadiens picked him in the second round of the 2013 draft. In Carey Price, Fucale has even more of a roadblock in front of him than O’Connor, but each goaltender is confident about his chances of eventually making the leap to the NHL.
“It doesn’t change my expectations,” Fucale said. “If you look at every team in the league, every team has a good starter, every team has good goalies in their organization. My goal stays the same. I one day want to play in the NHL. I want to take it one step at a time.”
The next step for O’Connor and Fucale is the American Hockey League as first-year professionals. O’Connor is making the transition from the NCAA, while Fucale is stepping up from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he won the Memorial Cup in addition to helping Canada capture world junior gold.
Fucale’s next coach with the St. John’s IceCaps, Sylvain Lefebvre, knows the 20-year-old has accomplished a lot at the junior level and is ready for a bigger challenge. But he said the Canadiens are going to be patient with Fucale and won’t just hand him the starting AHL job right away.
“We believe in this kid: He’s a talented kid, he’s a winner, he’s a gamer,” Lefebvre said Saturday at the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie tournament. “He’s going to make his place. The way he’s going to play will dictate how many games he’s going to play and how he’s going to play.”
O’Connor similarly will have to compete for playing time in Binghamton with Chris Driedger, coach Luke Richardson said. The 23-year-old Toronto native doesn’t mind that, remembering how minor midget goaltending partner J.P. Anderson pushed him eight years ago.
“He’s not looking for the fast track for someone to promise him that he’s going to be the backup in the NHL right away,” Richardson said. “He’s a mature guy, he’s willing to work at it, and I think that’s why he made the decision to come here.”
A late bloomer, O’Connor just wants to be ready as soon as possible. He considers Hammond’s “Hamburglar” run a source of motivation and also looks at how Ottawa developed big goaltenders Ben Bishop and Lehner, and how Cory Schneider grew into a pro after playing college hockey.
“Everyone’s path is different,” the six-foot-five O’Connor said. “I hope that my size will allow me to transfer a bit sooner than some goalies.”
With his sights set on the NHL some day, Fucale said he has to work on every area of his game, not just one. O’Connor, who has cited goaltending coach Rick Wamsley as a reason he signed with the Senators, will try to play deeper in his net, get lower in his stance and be ready to move side-to-side more in the pro ranks.
O’Connor’s NHL chance could come sooner than Fucale’s, especially because the Canadiens also have Dustin Tokarski already in the NHL and Mike Condon in St. John’s. And, of course, because Price is the reigning Vezina and Hart Trophy winner and is considered among the best goaltenders in the world.
Fucale isn’t alone, as top prospect Malcolm Subban has Tuukka Rask blocking him with the Boston Bruins. Price and Rask could make Fucale and Subban attractive trade chips, but it’s not something the Rosemere, Que., native is worrying about right now.
“Everything has its time. I really do believe that,” Fucale said. “I’d like to just focus on one little goal at a time. That’s in the future. It’s not necessarily in the very far future there, but it’s too early to tell.”
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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press