No one knows right now just how different the Rangers’ roster will look on Tuesday, the day after the NHL trade deadline. But if there was any chance that the Rangers — who are expected to be active — were going to trade away a bunch of defensemen and then be forced to call up Nesconset native Rob O’Gara from their minor league team in Hartford, well, that went out the window when O’Gara suffered a back injury roughly three weeks ago.
“I’ve been working at rehabbing, getting back,’’ O’Gara said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s getting better every day. Hopefully, within the next couple weeks I’ll be back playing.’’
The injury is something that bothered O’Gara in college, but hadn’t resurfaced since, until the morning skate before a game Feb. 5 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers when his back just locked up.
The timing was bad. Beyond the hope that he might have been in line to step up to the Rangers if they traded away a defenseman or two, there’s also the possibility that he might have been a throw-in in one of their deals, as he was in the trade a year ago that brought him to the Rangers from Boston, as part of the return for Nick Holden.
O’Gara, 25, is at a place in his career where he knows the window won’t be open too much longer for him to make the NHL. Now in his third professional year, O’Gara is seeing younger players brought into the organization at his position begin to jump in front of him in the pecking order.
That’s what happened last month when an injury to Freddie Claesson — at the same time that Kevin Shattenkirk was already out — prompted the Rangers to call up a defenseman. They didn’t choose O’Gara, opting instead to take a look at rookie pro Ryan Lindgren, who was 20 years old at the time, and who, like O’Gara, had come to the Rangers in a trade with Boston at last year’s deadline.
O’Gara was driving with Lindgren when he got the call to come up. The two live in the same building in Hartford and have become close, with O’Gara serving as something of a mentor to the younger player. And while he was happy for Lindgren, O’Gara admitted he was also disappointed it wasn’t him who had gotten the call.
“I would call Ryan one of my best friends on the team,’’ O’Gara said. “I kind of have taken some pride in sort of taking him under my wing, in a way, and trying to show him the ropes of professional hockey… So, I was very happy for him. He got emotional; it was incredible. It felt like when I was about to play my first NHL game, and it was kind of cool to see that in him — while, of course, feeling frustrated that it wasn’t me.’’
O’Gara’s future with the Rangers is cloudy. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent in the summer, and the organization is clearly stocking up at the defense position, having picked six defensemen at last summer’s draft. Despite playing well in the two preseason games in which he appeared, it never felt like O’Gara ever had a realistic chance to make the team, and he admits now that he struggled for the first month-and-a-half or so when he was sent down to Hartford. Eventually, with some self-reflection and the help of a sports psychologist, he began to play better.
“I guess I was worried too much about that early on, and since then — I wouldn’t say, I came to grips with it, but more like I’m not worried about that, I’m just worried about handling me, handling my business,’’ he said. “And if something were to happen try to put myself in the best position for them to say, ‘Hey, let’s get this guy in here.’’’
With both the Rangers and Hartford unlikely to make the playoffs, O’Gara is most likely looking at a long summer. He said he probably spent too much time in the gym last summer, and had almost tired himself out by August. This summer, he’s going to cut back on the gym time and get some more rest. He’s getting married in July, which will take up a good part of his summer.
As for the rest of this season, the goal now is to get healthy and finish this season strong. A callup to the Rangers seems unlikely at this point, but O’Gara’s focus now is to set himself up to be successful next season, wherever he ends up.