When the Carolina Hurricanes signed 25-year-old forward Patrick O`Sullivan to a one-year, two-way contract last week, it was more than a young player getting a second chance. It was also a North Carolina-raised player returning to the state where he spent the first eight years of his life — and the home of his estranged father.
O`Sullivan’s relationship with his father is well-documented — the case of an overbearing father living his unfulfilled dreams through his son and not only pushing the line too hard, but crossing it with physical and mental abuse.
But O`Sullivan overcame the tribulations of his youth to become an established NHLer. He scored 22 goals in 2007-08 with the Kings, then followed that up with 14 tallies in 62 games before being dealt to Edmonton in a three-way trade that saw him briefly become Carolina's property (Justin Williams went to L.A.) before he was shipped to the Oilers for one-time Canes forward Erik Cole.
But O`Sullivan never meshed with the lowly Oilers, registering just six points the rest of 2008-09, then managing 11 goals and 23 assists while playing top-six minutes last season. Due nearly $2.4 million in 2010-11, the Oilers deemed O`Sullivan expendable and a salary burden, sending him to Phoenix for defenseman Jim Vandermeer. Phoenix promptly bought him out for close to $800,000, much less than the $2.925 million he was set to earn.
Still just 25, O`Sullivan was at a crossroads: was his NHL career at risk because of his poor numbers in Edmonton, or could the ultra-skilled forward find a new home on an NHL roster? The opening of free agency came and went, and O`Sullivan was without a contract. hat finally changed last week when Carolina GM Jim Rutherford took a low-risk chance on O`Sullivan, inking him to a one-year, two-way deal that would pay him $600,000 in the NHL and $105,000 in the AHL.
For Rutherford, it was the next in a long line of reclamation projects — some of which have gone well, some that have not. Jussi Jokinen has been Rutherford's most recent steal, scoring 30 goals in his first full season with Carolina after being acquired from Tampa Bay for better than nothing (the Lightning took back salary to offset Jokinen's contract). Signings like Jeff Hamilton, Stephane Yelle and Josef Melichar didn't work out as well.
So Tuesday night in Carolina's preseason opener, O`Sullivan began his quest to reclaim his status as an NHLer, doing it in the state where his love for hockey began and his broken relationship with his father is surely omnipresent.
As the night wore on, O`Sullivan weaved his way through defenders, won battles for pucks and showed the hands and vision that made him an emerging NHL star. Washed away were the questions of how O`Sullivan could possibly thrive in the shadows of his past, and in their place appeared the player that could, with the right breaks, perhaps play alongside Eric Staal as the playmaker and dazzling puck-handler that could replace the departed Ray Whitney on the Hurricanes' top line.
The Hurricanes fell 4-1, surrendering three quick goals in the first period before regaining control of the game and carrying the pace, though struggling to score. The one goal they did net came on a 2-on-1 rush, with O`Sullivan feeding Anton Babchuk on the first goal of Carolina's 2010-11 season. In the win, top prospects Erik Gudbranson and Jacob Markstrom were among the stars for the victorious Panthers. As for O`Sullivan, he was the game's second star and arguably the best player on the ice all night in a losing effort.
Coach Paul Maurice mentioned O`Sullivan as one of the few players on the ice — for either side — that was able to fight through the bouncing pucks and sloppiness that was prevalent and find ways to make plays. For one night, O`Sullivan looked like another of Rutherford's steals. But with several young players battling with him for a roster spot and only one game under his belt, O`Sullivan has a long way to go before he can say he's all the way back in the NHL.
"I'm trying to earn everything I can get here," O`Sullivan said after the game. "I was excited for tonight, and I think it's good to get the first one out of the way."
It sure is.