HERSHEY, Pa. – If ever there has been a fixture on the Hershey Bears roster in the “modern era” of the team’s history, it has been forward Liam O’Brien.
“Big Tuna” has skated the majority of his professional career wearing the Hershey colors, playing six seasons and 370 total regular season games. O’Brien has 63 career goals and 74 assists in the regular season during that span, tallying a single season high of 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 2016-17.
This summer, for the first time in his career, O’Brien becomes an unrestricted free agent, meaning it’s possible he could leave the Washington organization in search of a better crack at the NHL level. All of O’Brien’s past contracts have left him as a restricted free agent, which gave a higher probability for him to sign another deal with the Capitals. The tenured forward could always sign another deal to stay, provided the deal works out for both parties.
Check out this great footwork from Liam O’Brien that results in a Tyler Lewington goal! pic.twitter.com/wPoBgNsyRi
— Bears Hockey Nation (@HBHNationBlog) January 19, 2020
O’Brien has built a reputation as a hardworking, reliable winger at all positions. Although he has not been a noted goal scorer, he brings a relentless work effort that made him a natural choice for a leadership role with the Bears almost instantly. Had the Bears gone with electing a traditional captain this season, it would be easy to see O’Brien wearing the captain’s emblem on his sweater.
He’s the kind of player a team loves to have in the locker room, and his willingness to step up to the plate and deliver a big moment or performance is a constant. Whether it was a big fight with Tom Sestito off the draw in Game 5 of the 2016 East Division Finals, or scoring a huge goal in Game 3 of last spring’s first round series against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, it’s easy to see O’Brien makes his presence known every night and even more so in the biggest moments during his time in Hershey.
O’Brien has one of the most intriguing cases to look at in terms of his history with the Washington organization. A few of O’Brien’s teammates (and considerably long-term Hershey skaters) like Nathan Walker, Riley Barber, and Aaron Ness all departed Chocolatetown after the 2018-19 campaign and got at least a brief stint of NHL time this past season. Barber briefly got a shot with the Montreal Canadiens before being traded at the deadline to his hometown Pittsburgh, Walker had a stint with the St. Louis Blues when they were dealing with injuries, and Ness had become a reliable seventh defender in Arizona.
O’Brien has been with Hershey since the 2014-15 campaign, which is a very long time by AHL standards, but only has 17 games in the NHL in that span and none since the 2017-18 season. O’Brien was not a black ace when the Caps won the Stanley Cup that season, either.
Hershey would be incredibly eager to retain O’Brien, as his leadership qualities and workmanship are a massive asset to the team. But, the biggest question before the forward is if he wants to try and compete in a different organization for NHL time or stick with the Washington organization where success is highly probable at all levels, but time may not be so abundant.
However, with this being a very unusual offseason (and contracts possibly not expiring until October), it’s equally possible that O’Brien could elect to stay on with the Capitals organization, especially if there’s a strong feeling for the forward to try and complete what the team started this season. Only time will tell at this point if O’Brien will return to the Washington organization, and although there hasn’t been any contract signings so far among the NHL contracts, the unique circumstances could lead to a very different timetable for any roster moves. The free agency period will likely be a very different place whenever it does happen.
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