Rob O’Gara sounded excited as he talked about the next chapter in his hockey career. The 26-year-old from Nesconset, who played for the Rangers’ Hartford Wolf Pack farm team last season, signed a contract Monday with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League, the top farm team of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
“I’m excited because it’s kind of a clean slate, and I don’t think a lot of people are expecting a lot from me,’’ O’Gara said in a telephone interview this week. “So, there’s no pressure.’’
O’Gara, a 6-4, 207-pound defenseman, signed a one-year, $75,000 deal with San Antonio and will report to the Blues’ training camp Sept. 11. Since his contract is with San Antonio, and not St. Louis, if he were to have a great camp and make the Blues’ opening night roster, he’d need to negotiate an NHL deal with them. The possibility also exists that if he were to play well enough in the preseason to catch the eye of another NHL organization, he could sign an NHL contract with that team – though the Blues would have the right to match the offer if they wanted to keep him in their organization.
“So this is better than a PTO [professional tryout] or something like that,’’ O’Gara explained. “I’m basically still an NHL free agent. And it’s kind of nice to have the security of a [minor-league] contract, with the ability to show that I’m healthy and have a lot to offer.’’
O’Gara played the final 22 games of the 2017-18 season with the Rangers after they acquired him from Boston in the February trade that sent Nick Holden to the Bruins. He then signed a one-year deal with the Rangers as a restricted free agent last summer. But with the Rangers having started a rebuilding phase that saw them acquire several highly drafted defense prospects -- as well as draft picks they used to select even more defensemen -- O’Gara failed to make the team out of training camp and was assigned to Hartford. His season there was cut short when he needed surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. He played 47 games for Hartford, scoring three goals, with eight assists and 64 penalty minutes. He was a plus player (plus-3) on a team that finished last in the Atlantic Division of the AHL and allowed 57 more goals than it scored.
This summer, O’Gara got married, but otherwise has focused on rehabbing his back. He said he is completely healthy now and doing everything he’s cleared to do. He expects to be cleared for full contact in early September.
Entering his fourth professional season, O’Gara said he still believes he has what it takes to be an NHL player, though he isn’t putting pressure on himself to make that happen next month.
“I think it’s not going to be easy to go into training camp – especially with a team like that – and make the team,’’ he said. “But I wouldn’t rule it out. Going into my first Bruins camp a few years ago, it was packed on defense. But there were some injuries, and I had a strong camp, and the next thing I knew I was starting the season in Boston.’’